As I sit here in South Texas with chaos all around us, and with our electrical power finally restored, it was brought to my attention that discussing disaster preparation was an urgent and timely subject. However, I can’t take credit for thinking of it. Already late in submitting my "Closing the Sale" article, and with a ton of work ahead of me just cleaning up the damage to my own place, my wife, Deborah, came into my office, and said, “Why don’t you write about preparing your store for disaster, before, during and after?” So here we go.
Down here on the Texas coast, we always know, in the back of our minds, that some day we are going to get hit with a hurricane, and hit hard. It’s not a question of “if”, it’s a question of “when.” We all know this, yet we are rarely prepared for it when it happens. Why is this? There are several reasons. One, these hurricane disasters, on average, do not happen very often. The last big one to come through this part of Texas was Hurricane Carla in 1961. Hurricane Celia hit Corpus Christi in 1970 and we had a small one, Claudette, in July 2003. So, while future preparation is on everybody’s mind right now, after several years of quiet, maybe even decades of quiet, one tends to forget. Second, the tracks of hurricanes are notoriously unpredictable. I have witnessed several mass evacuations only to watch the hurricane shift paths, leaving the evacuated areas with only hot, dry winds and zero rain.
Do not think you are immune. I’m thinking about the coastal Texas area in this particular disaster of Hurricane Harvey. But the last time I checked, I could not think of a single location in this great country that was completely safe from some kind of disaster, natural or man-made. Floods, windstorms, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, ice storms, pandemics, war, famine, hazardous material spills, airline and train wrecks, crime, rioting and insurrection all come to mind, no matter where you look. Each geographic location has its own set of potential problems.
Disasters aren’t cooperative, either. They don’t give you much, if any, warning. By the time it dawns on you that something is happening, it’s too late to do the preliminary work that should have been done last month or last year. When you are in emergency mode, just staying alive becomes the highest priority.
Three Preparation Phases
All events, disasters and emergencies have a before, during, and after. Just preparing for the onset of an emergency is certainly a good idea, but what happens during the emergency and, especially, what happens after? Bedding and furniture store owners must be ready to get back into business as soon as possible with as many resources as possible.
Before It Happens
What warning we usually get does not allow for thorough preparation. So, what should the store owners do to protect their business and the safety of their employees?
This article will briefly go over as many of the important issues as we have room for. But, remember, this article is more of a reminder to do something than a manual of what to do.
The internet is a great source of information on preparedness. Nearly infinite detail on this subject can be found with a simple search; “disaster preparation.” I found a useful app from North Dakota State University called “Small Business Disaster Plan.” It is free and downloads in seconds to your smart phone. It will work even if you don’t have power or internet service. Just make sure you keep your phone charged! It's easy if you have a generator or a few inexpensive, portable external phone battery chargers on hand.
1. Insurance. This is the big one, in my opinion. Study your insurance policy carefully so that you know you will be covered for any contingency. Insurance companies frequently include “exclusions” that store owners might not be completely aware of. Do not assume that all insurance policies are alike. They are not. You may not be an insurance expert. I know I’m not. So, where do you go to find out what you need? Your insurance agent is a good source to start with, but don’t rely on them completely. Shop around. You will find different viewpoints from each agent you talk to. Another source that is often forgotten is the Small Business Administration. This agency publishes a lot of useful information on its website about all aspects of business management. Included is “what to look for in business liability insurance.” Before signing up for a policy, read this and as much other information as you can find before making a decision on business insurance.
Don’t forget, the whole point of buying insurance and paying large premiums is to fully financially compensate you should there be a disaster. Don’t be the unfortunate individual who finds out after it’s too late; “Oh, that’s not covered in your policy.”
Oh, and be sure and read all those annual policy updates and changes that you get every year. And, pay your premiums on time.
2. Get Ready. Develop an emergency plan and put it where you can find it when you need it. The North Dakota State University app I mentioned earlier allows you to enter names and contact points for all phases of any event. And, it is right there on your smart phone. Publish your plan so all your employees can read it, and make certain they do. It's also a good idea to have a general employee meeting once or twice a year to remind everyone that there is a plan in place.
3. Vital Elements. A critical part of your plan should be to decide BEFOREHAND which items you cannot do without. Credit card machines and that sort of thing will be needed when you resume operations. Don’t forget business records, customer files, etc. Review the article in this issue of Furniture World on cyber security. Its focus is on ransomware, but the same principles of backing up vital customer and business information with a "3, 2, 1" process apply.
How do you protect inventory? Roofs leak. The worst roof problems I ever experienced, interestingly enough, were in sunny Southern California. We had a sudden, severe winter storm and we found out that over half the stores in our chain had serious roof leaks. Insurance will probably cover your loss, but any rain-damaged goods means less inventory to sell when you are back in business. If you lack confidence in your roof, think about keeping some inexpensive tarps on hand to cover floor models and warehouse stock. If you cannot protect your inventory, go through your store and warehouse and do a quick video (on your smart phone) of all merchandise, floor models and backup stock. You may need it for insurance claims.
How do you protect your building? Whether you rent or own, you want the building to be as protected as possible. Most stores feature large glass enclosed showrooms and these glass windows are among the most vulnerable points on the building. Placing plywood over the windows seems like a good solution, but with the way many buildings are constructed, it is possible to do a lot of unnecessary damage to the building to secure the plywood, only to find that the plywood blows off anyway during the storm. I would suggest, at minimum, to tape your windows with packing tape. Look online for the proper way to do this.
4. Backup Manager. What if you are on vacation observing penguin habitats in Antarctica when an earthquake suddenly devastates much of your market area? You will need a backup emergency manager to take over.
5. Evacuation. Some disasters, such as hurricanes, call for quick evacuation from the affected area. In Coastal Texas, we have learned the hard way, that the EARLIER the evacuation, the better. If you evacuate, have multiple routes to choose from, because you never know which direction the problem will come from. And don’t wait. As the city of Houston found out several years ago in Hurricane Rita, if you wait to leave town when everybody else does, you might just as well stay home. The Rita evacuation killed TEN TIMES more people than the hurricane itself did. And, in this latest catastrophe, Hurricane Harvey’s landfall was over 100 miles from Houston, but the peculiar weather conditions and the storm’s wide circulation, caused over four FEET of rain to fall in a town that has been known to flood with a brief afternoon thunderstorm.
6. Suppliers. Finally, after the event is over, there is almost always an increased need for mattresses and furniture to replace damaged or destroyed items. Don’t find yourself short of salable goods, especially the MOST NEEDED ITEMS, such as mattresses.
7. Shelter. If you cannot evacuate, you may need to “shelter in place.” This may also include sheltering some or all of your employees. It is smarter to find a potential shelter before the event than during it. Needless to say, the shelter, if needed, should be adequately pre-stocked with water, food and other necessities.
8. Communication. You must have the phone numbers and any social media identifiers stored on your smart phone for all:
- City, county and state officials you can call for status information
- Suppliers who can quickly restock your store
- Television, radio, newspapers and other news outlets for updates
- Your insurance agent
This is just a partial list. All of this preparation can be done before anything happens. Again, I would suggest searching “disaster preparation” online to make certain that you are not overlooking any important items.
One very important point to remember is that once advance notice of a disaster is given, ALL necessities of life will DISAPPEAR from store shelves immediately.
While It Is Happening
Most business people like to know what is happening with their businesses when they are not on-site. This is true whether you are on vacation or in the middle of a disaster.
Install Camera Surveillance. Some systems have apps that enable you to watch your business from afar. This capability may be disrupted in certain types of crises, but If you can stay internet connected, you can watch your store from your phone computer.
Talk To Your Neighbors. Fire and police officials usually remain behind. Sometimes friends, neighbors, and local business owners do as well. Develop connections so you can find out the condition of your store.
Contact News Agencies. You may be able to keep track of things by staying in touch with reporters, weather staff and others who stay behind to report on the disaster.
Use Social Media. In this last storm, we received more local information from Facebook, texting, and other social media than we did from any news organization.
Communicate With Employees. Store owners should know the locations of all employees and their condition. Make sure they are out of harm’s way during the crisis. You will need them when you re-open.
If you can find a way to monitor the progress of the disastrous event and its impact on your business, you will be better prepared to take immediate and effective action once you return.
If You Don’t Evacuate
In Hurricane Harvey, Gallery Furniture opened its store as a shelter to storm victims while the storm was still in progress. Then they followed up by housing the rescue volunteers. Civic minded deeds such as this have become the norm for this particular business. This type of action isn’t just good-hearted, it is also good business.
After It’s Over
Most store owners want to get back into business as quickly as possible. In a great many of these events, power outages can continue for days, if not weeks. As mentioned earlier, local citizens affected by the event will need your products, immediately, if not sooner.
Before resuming operations, here are a few things to think about:
1. Do a thorough examination of your store to check for damage to the building, inventory, floor models and mechanical systems, such as electricity, HVAC, plumbing, internet and phone service. Remove all damaged floor models before allowing customers in. If part of the building is unusable, carefully restrict customer entry to that area.
2. Use emergency power, if necessary. In South Texas, in August and September, it gets very hot. If your store is operating on emergency power, such as a generator, it may be hard to keep a comfortable temperature. That being said, there are still stores in the hot, humid south that NEVER have installed air conditioning, yet they still do business. Don’t wait to open your store just because the air conditioning isn't working. Some customers don’t mind a little discomfort to get a good deal. The main thing is to not put them in danger.
3. Let everybody know you are open! Social media advertising is a good way to get a message out quickly.
4. Offer a “disaster discount.” Be a good citizen. It will earn you a lot of goodwill from the community.
5. Watch out for outlaws. By this I mean looters, scam artists, grifters, con men and price gougers. Disasters are a magnet for these types of people.
6. Have plenty of merchandise on hand to sell. It is a good idea to have per-arranged agreements with suppliers so that an emergency order is activated in the event of a disaster.
7. Ensure the safety of your employees. Keep them away from any damaged parts of your business that might put them in danger.
8. Restore all the critical pieces of the business that you might have evacuated before the event. This includes necessary mechanical items, vital customer records, etc.
Just because a disaster arrives without warning does not mean that we should be totally unprepared. I’m sure many who read this article will be able to think of a bunch of other preparations that I left out. But, as mentioned earlier in the article, the whole point of the article is not to give you a manual of how to prepare, it is an alarm signal to store owners that NOW is the time to prepare for the next disaster. Don’t wait until it’s too late.