Friday, November 30, 2012

Small Business Saturday: a $5.5 billion success

A week after the holiday-shopping season kicked off, the numbers for the third-annual Small Business Saturday on Nov. 24 are in: 

Millions of U.S. consumers spent an estimated $5.5 billion dollars with independent merchants, according to a survey by the National Federation of Independent Business and American Express, which started Small Business Saturday three years ago. 

Pre-holiday surveys estimated U.S. consumers would spent $5.3 billion. 

But the big bucks weren't limited to Small Business Saturday or Black Friday. Austin-based Bigcommerce, an e-commerce platform for more than 30,000 small and mid-sized businesses, clocked 3,400 orders per second on Cyber Monday. 

Locally, many small business owners say the day exceeded their expectations. "It was by far the best year yet for SouthEnd," said Ted Boyd, director of historic SouthEnd with Charlotte Center City Partners. 

More than 75 small businesses in SouthEnd participated, up from 10 small businesses in 2010, Boyd said. 

Wayne Parker, who co-owns Whispering Willow Soap Co. at Atherton Market with his wife Julia Gold, said business was up 300 percent from the same day last year. The couple offered a 20 percent promotion for the day. 

Amy MacCabe, owner of Savory Spice Shop, said Nov. 24 was the store's biggest sales and transaction day to date.  

Some other interesting national stats: 
  • The Small Business Saturday Facebook page, which encourages consumers to shop local and offers advice to small business owners, has 3.2 million likes, up from 2.4 million likes last year.
  • More than 213,000 tweets were sent in support of Small Business Saturday in November, many using the hashtags #smallbizsat and #shopsmall. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What's the best tablet for small businesses?

It’s the year of the tablet – but what’s the best kind for small businesses?

More small business owners are expected to pick smart phones or tablets in lieu of laptops and desktop computers in the future, according to a survey by New York-based Newtek Business Services.

And among small businesses looking to pick a tablet brand that boosts productivity, the right pricepoint is a key factor, too, according to this story in

If you're buying a tablet this holiday, what kind are you getting? Take our weekly ShopTalk poll, here, and read more here about the different tablet options available.

Friday, November 23, 2012

'Buy local' campaigns help small businesses

This week’s ShopTalk story on Small Business Saturday promotions also talks about what’s happening in different communities to help local merchants compete for business year-round.

Area efforts include Cash Mob shoppers in Charlotte and Concord, and RelyLocal, a national effort marketing small businesses, with a group at work in Matthews, Mint Hill and Indian Trail.

In Historic Downtown Concord, which has shops, restaurants and galleries, the local development corporation even extended Small Business Saturday from a one-time event to a once-a-month promotion.

Now comes a new independent business survey by the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which shows that similar public awareness campaigns are paying off for local merchants.

According to the survey, independent businesses in communities with an active “buy local” campaign operated by a local business organization reported revenue growth of 7.2 percent in 2011, compared to 2.6 percent for those in areas without such an initiative.

Retailers in areas with buy local campaigns reported a holiday sales growth of 8.5 percent in 2011, compared to 5.2 percent for retailers in areas without these campaigns.

And 85 percent of respondents said shopping locally-owned, independent businesses matters to some or most of their customers.

The institute’s 2012 Independent Business Survey included 1,768 businesses, and was conducted during an eight-day period in January. See more here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Are you Facebook friends with your boss?

When it comes to whether or not you should friend a boss on Facebook, opinions are as varied as status updates.

Surveys by Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project found mixed feelings regarding friending the boss.

But a 2011 report by Minnesota-based Russell & Herder Inc., a marketing and research firm, revealed other sentiments.

An online survey of nearly 1,000 found that younger people are more likely to connect with supervisors. Among those with a Facebook account and a direct supervisor, 26 percent ages 18-34 report they are connected to their supervisor on Facebook. That compares to only 10 percent of those 35 and over.

What do you think? Are you Facebook friends with your boss? Take our ShopTalk poll here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Do small businesses get a boost from Black Friday?

Bank of America put that question to more than a thousand small business owners across the country as part of its Small Business Owner Report for November.

The day after Thanksgiving – and the entire Black Friday weekend overall – is expected to draw up to 147 million shoppers, according to the National Retail Federation.

But the majority of small business owners polled don’t expect to claim much of that retail sales pie on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, according to the Bank of America study.

When small business owners were asked about the importance of Black Friday:

-75 percent said the day has “no effect on my business’ bottom line.”

-16 percent said the day has “a minor impact.”

-7 percent called Black Friday “one of many significant factors that impact my business’ bottom line.

-1 percent agreed that “if it weren’t for Black Friday, I wouldn’t be in business.”

For the report, Braun Research surveyed 1,003 small business owners by phone between Sept. 9 and Oct. 7. The businesses employ between 2 and 99, and have annual revenues ranging from $100,000 to $4,999,999. An additional 300 small business owners were surveyed in nine target markets.

Monday, November 19, 2012

South End gets ready for Small Business Saturday

South End merchants are rolling out the welcome mats -- literally -- for Small Business Saturday.

Those would be the blue-and-white door mats already popping up at places making plans for the third annual shopping holiday, part of a national campaign founded by American Express. (Above, the Roots food truck made use of its mat last week. Photo courtesy of Ted Boyd.)

Sandwiched between the big-box mega deals of Black Friday, and the online shopping promotions of Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday promotes locally-run, independently-owned merchants that make up the backbone of many communities. (Read more about how local businesses are promoting themselves this retail season, and year round, in Wednesday’s ShopTalk section.)

Ted Boyd with Charlotte Center City Partners, who is director of Historic South End, counts more than 870 small businesses with 250 employees or less in the territory, comprised of one square mile. The highest concentration of businesses is along the Camden Road and South Boulevard areas.

Once again, organizers are looking to draw shoppers to the area with special events and promotions at stores. Shoppers can get a retail guide to South End businesses. Mayor Anthony Foxx signed a proclamation declaring the day Small Business Saturday in Charlotte, and has also filmed a video talking about the importance of local, small businesses. Charlotte City Councilman James Mitchell will read the proclamation at 10 a.m. at Atherton Mill Market.

And new this year is a 6 p.m. tree lighting, also at Atherton Mill, with Santa Claus, hot chocolate and music.

Look for information tables at Camden Road at East Park Avenue; at Atherton Mill Market, 2104 South Blvd.; Sedgefield Shopping Center’s Healthy Home Market, 2702 South Blvd., and at South End’s furniture district, off Griffith and South Tryon Street.

Boyd said don’t expect Saturday to be a one-day holiday in South End; merchants are using the day to kick off the area’s retail shopping season.

“Our campaign,” said Boyd, “is ‘Eat, drink, and be merry …and shop your sleigh bells off.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

U.S. Chamber to host job fair for vets, spouses

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and RecruitMilitary will host a "Hiring Our Heroes – Charlotte" job fair for veterans and military spouses of all ranks and experience levels from 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, 5555 Concord Parkway South.

More than 35 employers are expected to participate, and companies range from some of the nation's biggest employers to small businesses across the region.

The event will include a free workshop with one-on-one mentoring, resume building, resume writing and interviewing techniques.

Since its launch in March 2011, "Hiring Our Heroes" job fairs nationwide have helped more than 14,100 veterans and military spouses find employment.
Thursday's event also is part of "Hiring 500,000 Heroes," a national campaign led by the U.S. Chamber, National Chamber Foundation and Capital One, to encourage the business community to hire 500,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2014.

Interested job seekers should register for free at Walk-in job seekers are allowed, and veterans must provide military ID.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Small business meets tablet app: a success story

Our latest ShopTalk story shows how tablet apps can help small businesses boost the bottom line – whether they’re developing them or just using existing tools.

The story focuses on the owners of Dilworth restaurant Zen Fusion, who developed an iPad app called NexTable to remedy concerns they had at their business, including: guests leaving after being quoted a wait time, stressed out staff and a relatively inflexible table system.
The NexTable iPad app in action at Zen Fusion. 

The app is now used in more than a dozen local restaurants, with nearly two dozen more in the pipeline, says NexTable co-founder Phong Luong.

A veteran of the food-service industry myself, I wanted to see the app in action, so I headed to Zen Fusion during my lunch hour last week. Luong walked me through how the new restaurant-management system would work for a typical customer like me and how it makes for a better guest experience.

After greeting me from a hostess stand devoid of clutter and occupied only by an iPad, Luong ushered me to a booth by the front door, where another iPad and a new iPad mini were set up.

You know how on today’s tablet commercials, everything looks effortless? Just a little drag-and-drop here, a tap with the forefinger there and BAM – chaos to order.

That’s the vibe I got when I saw NexTable in action. Luong and I reenacted several potential situations that could happen at any of the restaurants that use the iPad app.

1) Reservations: First, we pretend I’m on my A-game and think to make a reservation. I pretend to call the restaurant to schedule dinner at 6 p.m., and Luong puts my information in the system. Within seconds, I get a text confirmation, including my party size, the time, date, address of the restaurant and a link to the Zen Fusion website, where I can find directions.

2) Walk-ins: Then we reenact the more likely situation where I just walk in, no reservation. I tell Luong “party of three” and he puts me in the system. Using the sophisticated table-time estimates built into the app, he informs me I’ll have to wait about 35 minutes before my table is ready.

Rather than hand me a pager, Luong asks for my cell phone number and tells me that I’m free to walk around the shopping center, and that I’ll get a text reminder when my table is almost ready. “Would you like to know 10 minutes or 20 minutes before?” he asks. Then, if I've strayed far, I’ll have time get back.

3) Incentives to stay: In the third mock-up situation, I’m a walk-in guest given a wait time of about an hour.  I stick around the restaurant lobby for about 15 minutes, but begin to consider other nearby restaurants where I won’t have to wait so long. Then, I get a text that says, “Show this to the bartender to get a half-price glass of wine.” Now I've got an incentive to stick around.

I've worked in restaurants before – as a hostess in high school and a server in college – and can attest to the stress of an evening bustle.  

You've seen it before: At many restaurants, the hostess stand is populated with well-dressed teens huddled around a paper calendar of reservations, a list of last names and party sizes, and a laminated mock-up of the dining room.

Then there’s this rudimentary chart that says “if X names are on the list, the wait time is X.” But that collection of rows and columns doesn't account for how a large party might take up two tables, how a group celebrating a birthday might stay twice the normal length of time, or how the guy who orders a well-done steak (why??) will prolong his stay by a half-hour.

So sometimes the hosts and hostesses, no fault of their own, quote an inaccurate wait time. And sometimes hungry people get testy. And sometimes these hungry people mutter obscenities before they squeal a tire and take their appetites elsewhere. 

When you’re a hostess, your feelings get a little hurt, but when you’re a business owner, you see dollar signs walking out the door. 

At Zen Fusion, and the other restaurants using NexTable, including Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar, CafĂ© Monte and Miro Spanish Grille, there are no stacks of paper at the hostess stands, no  charts that are often wrong.

One of the restaurants now using NexTable did the math, Luong said. In the pre-NexTable days, every night, the restaurant lost about six to eight parties, with an average of three guests per party.

If you assume four of those parties left because they were frustrated by the wait or an inaccurate wait time, that’s 12 lost customers a night.

Multiply 12 by the average meal price, $25 total, and you have $300 per night in foregone revenue. That’s an average of $2,100 lost each week ­– nearly $110,000 per year.

For more information and helpful tips for utilizing a tablet app for your small business, check out today’s ShopTalk story

Local company, entrepreneur build mobile app

One trip too many through the fast-food drive-thru served as the inspiration for entrepreneur Dan Ballister’s new mobile app.

“I had what I call the ‘cole slaw moment,’” says Ballister, creator of the Drive-thru Dining Guide

smartphone app, which highlights healthy eating options at 30 major fast-food places.

He had just finished a workout, and hit a nearby place for lunch before heading back to the office. Thinking healthy, he got a diet coke, a grilled chicken sandwich – and the cole slaw, instead of fries.

He also grabbed the nutritional guide – and discovered the slaw turned out to be one of the worst things he could order, due to the mayo and high fat-gram count, Ballister said.

So through his company, Pure Genius Productions, LLC, he created a print guide listing healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner combinations. The guide includes calorie counts, fat grams and saturated fat grams, and sodium content.

While Ballister found his guide fun to read and comprehensive, he thought a mobile app version would better serve busy users accustomed to keeping a smartphone in their hand for information.

But how do you build an app? “I am not at all an expert on things like that,” Ballister says.

“I wanted to work with a local company on the app. I didn’t want to work with somebody oversees. I wanted to meet with somebody in person.”

That’s where Skookum Digital Works in Charlotte came in. Creative director Josh Oakhurst said it was a “no-brainer” to Ballister that his paper guide absolutely needed a digital counterpart.

Going for a tailor-made app is a choice more entrepreneurs and small businesses are making as a way to raise their profile, boost sales and get their services in the hands of more users. In Wednesday’s ShopTalk section inside the Charlotte Observer, Caroline McMillan writes about a local Charlotte restaurateur who worked with business partners to build a restaurant-management app now used more than a dozen Charlotte restaurants.

“Many businesses don’t have technical people on staff and just assume problems are problems and it’s just something they have to live with,” Oakhurst said via email.

“We can use technology to solve every internal and external problem a business owner may face. Everything including productivity, morale, sales and profits can be increased with creative software solutions.”

Ballister’s Drive-thru Dining Guide app debuted last month. Ballister, former director of communications for Time Warner Cable in Charlotte, recently left town for a similar position in Louisville.

The smartphone app, available on iPhone or Android devices, is 99 cents – the cost of some fast-food meals, Ballister says. He says he invested “several thousand dollars” to create the app, because “I really thought it was a very important investment to make.”

Small business optimism ticks up slightly

In its latest Small Business Optimism Index released Tuesday, the National Federation of Independent Business finds a slight rise in owner sentiment about the economy. But owner pessimism about business conditions still runs strong, according to the survey.

The October survey, based on responses of 2,029 small business that are part of the NFIB, was conducted before the presidential election. The survey finds:

-Doubts about the economy run high. Owners uncertain about whether business conditions will be better or worse in six months was at a record high of 23 percent. This eclipsed the pre-recession record of 15 percent, reached during the Carter Administration, according to the NFIB.

- Weak sales remains the No. 1 business problem for 22 percent of owners surveyed.

-Access to credit is low priority among owners: 28 percent reported all credit needs met, and 52 percent said they did not want a loan. Eight percent reported that all their credit needs were not met.
-Capital spending plans were up, with 23 percent of owners reporting plans, up one percent. But only seven percent reported this was a good time to expand facilities.

“While four of ten survey components rose, the Index still remains in solidly pessimistic – and recessionary – territory,” said NFIB chief economist William Dunkelberg.

“…The looming fiscal cliff and the threat of higher costs and more taxes are very real possibilities come January. Until then, not knowing the direction of the economy will always have a dampening impact on spending and hiring.”

NFIB planned to post a link of the survey here. Below is the index at a glance.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Get start-up capital for your small business

If you're an entrepreneur in want of start-up investors, consider attending the "Raising Angel and Early-Stage Capital" conference Nov. 15 at UNC Charlotte.

The event is hosted by UNCC’s the Belk College of Business and local nonprofit Business Innovation & Growth, known as BIG. 

Panel discussion topics include: equity versus bootstrap financing, deal structures for early-stage capital, how to attract angel investors, making an investment pitch and how to run a company once you have the start-up capital.

“It’s a deep dive into this process,” says BIG President and CEO Terry Thorson Cox, who founded the organization in 2006. 

BIG offers a peer network, leadership and mentoring support, and access to resources, capital and expertise to members, who Cox refers to as “high-potential entrepreneurs.”

“They’re a bunch of one- to five-employee companies...that will be eventually provide a lot of jobs,” Cox says.

Entrepreneurs who spoke at the 2011 annual event will offer updates on their successes and failures raising capital over the past year.

Before the discussion on making the investor pitch, a handful of up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the greater Charlotte area will give three- to five- minute pitches.  One speaker is Phong Luong, co-founder of NexTable, an iPad app designed to help restaurants better manage their reservations and front-of-house operations.

Luong helped develop the app out of a need he saw in his own restaurant, Zen Fusion in Dilworth. 

Learn more about Luong’s story in this week’s ShopTalk, the Observer’s small business section, out Wednesday.

Thursday’s event is free for UNCC students and BIG members, $25 for non-UNCC students and pre-revenue start-ups, and $65 for other guests who purchase tickets in advance. Cost is $80 at the door.

Details: or visit

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How do you compete with the big guys?

Tell me your secrets for taking on the big-box stores on Small Business Saturday on Nov. 24 -- or on any day of the year.

While the Friday after Thanksgiving is known as the day for bargain prices at malls and big-box stores, Small Business Saturday is all about touting local businesses. This is the third year of the national shopping campaign, created to help smaller stores get a share of the multibillion-dollar holiday retail sales season. (Pictured above is a photo taken during last year's Small Business Saturday events in South End: Cheryl Dunlevy, on right, shops for a hat at The Boulevard at South End.)

For a future story and blog post, I want to hear what Charlotte-area small businesses are doing to compete with the big places.

On Small Business Saturday in particular, what are you planning to do to get people in the door? Are you offering any deals? Special shopping promotions? Or are you teaming up with other fellow small businesses that Saturday to draw people in?

And do you use these same approaches -- or do things differently -- to draw in customers during the rest of the year?

Let me hear your stories and strategies: Email me at, and put “Small Business Saturday” in the subject line.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Small businesses ask, now what?

What are the main issues small-business owners are talking about regarding President Obama’s reelection?

While taxes, health care reform and the so-called “fiscal cliff” are hot topics, what owners really want are assurances “that more people are going to walk through the door,” said Mekael Teshome, an economist with PNC Bank who follows small businesses.

“The concerns are how strong is this recovery going to be, and is this recovery going to be strong enough to keep business flowing in?...It really has to do with feeling good that the economy is moving forward.”

Obama could face a tight-timeline to prove this: “It needs to be in 2013, this coming year,” Teshome says. That’s because the last two years for two-term presidents can be especially difficult as Congress changes hands. That happened with GOP President George Bush in 2006, when Democrats took control of the House.

Other takes on these topics making the rounds Wednesday: The lobby group National Small Business Association is urging lawmakers to "get to work" addressing the "fiscal cliff," the package of tax increases and deep spending cuts that will take effect in January unless Congress reaches a budget deal.

On The Daily Dose blog at, Diana Ransom writes that Obama’s second-term plan for small businesses includes extending some of his strategies from the first four years. Among them: awarding government contracts to small businesses, and expanding upon the 18 small-business tax credits already enacted.

Small-business owners still have questions about the cost of health care reform and providing health insurance for employees, writes Joyce M. Rosenberg of the Associated Press.

How do you expect a second Obama administration will affect your small business? Email me at

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

'You really need 100 percent drive'

Our earlier blog post about small-business owners being passionate about what they’re doing struck a chord with two-time business owner Jana Vinke.

In that post, we talked about meeting Charlotte-area entrepreneurs willing to take big chances to launch their ventures.

“You really need 100% drive and positive energy to make it work. Money of course is a BIG issue. I’ve learned over the last year what to do and not to do,” Jana says via email. An edited version of it is recounted here with her permission.

She and husband Mike are co-owners of Vinkster’s Gourmet Kettle Corn

in Charlotte. With their mobile trailer, the Vinkes report making the rounds to cater at Belmont Abbey College, Charlotte Country Club, Torrence Creek Elementary School, and other places. Recently, their flavored corn snack landed in three local gas stations.

“Prior to owning this business we owned a landscape design company…We were very successful, but when times were getting hard customer(s) elected not to pay for services for landscaping…”

Clients not paying up is a common problem among small businesses. But instead of getting discouraged, Jana says, “we decided to start on a new adventure” – and Vinkster’s Gourmet Kettle Corn was born.

“You can start off small like we’ve done (working out of our house). Yes, I would love to have a store or be in the mall this holiday, but I don’t have the money to do that right now, so why not get your name out there and start one journey at a time?”

Now, Jana says, the Vinkes are invited to several places to “pop.” Her latest plan is to work with companies and organizations that have meetings or special events. “It just takes a lot of phone calls and showing up with samples to show people your product and offer your services.”

“There is a way to do your passion,” Jana says. “I never wanted to have any regrets saying ‘Man, I wish I would (have) started my own business.’ Life is too short not to die trying!”

Protect your small business against cyber threats

Recent news that a computer hacking attack against the S.C. Department of Revenue affected up to 657,000 businesses is drawing attention to cyber risks for small companies.

The compromised tax returns included social security numbers, federal tax identification numbers, credit and debit card numbers and bank accounts. It’s a substantial security breach that also claimed the tax records of 3.6 million S.C. taxpayers, too, dating back to 1998.

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley said state businesses will be able to get free credit monitoring. But not everyone’s convinced they’re safe from threats.

The Greenville News quoted Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, as saying that what businesses are most concerned about “is how to protect ourselves.”

While this security breach involves an agency outside of the affected companies, there are things small businesses can do to safeguard themselves and their data from cyber threats.

Among the suggestions from the Federal Communications Commission: Requiring employees to change passwords frequently, regularly backing up data on all computers, and using security software. More FCC tips are here.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The No. 1 ingredient to small-business success

Out of the many things aspiring entrepreneurs need to consider, one may be the most important:

Are you passionate about what you’re doing?

It’s something that Renee Hode, director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Small Business Center at Central Piedmont Community College, can see among the many hopefuls that walk through her door.

Some get quite the reality check in initial conversations with Hode, when they realize all that’s involved in launching a business.

“Some folks are overwhelmed by the process,” Hode says. But others are a different story.

“Some folks will come in, and it’s sheer excitement,” Hode says. “They have the passion for what they want to do, and the wherewithal to go through all the steps.”

This could mean going back to school to learn the many skills needed on the small-business front – from taking classes in accounting, to fulfilling the licensing and legal requirements needed for the business.

As we’ve prepared ShopTalk, our new weekly section of small business news that debuts in Wednesday’s Observer, my colleague Caroline McMillan and I have been struck by the passion of Charlotte-area entrepreneurs taking big chances to launch their ventures. On Wednesday, you’ll meet Olive Stewart, who risked money from her 401K to build a business around the family seasonings. Now, her Bushelle Seasonings is on the shelves at the new Whole Foods in south Charlotte.

In upcoming weeks, you’ll meet other entrepreneurs who took chances: From changing locations of their businesses in the hope of drawing more foot traffic, to investing their own money on new inventions with the hope that they’ll hit it big in the marketplace. Their stories of hard work, lessons learned and determination to be successful can serve not only as inspiration, but as a how-to road map of sorts for other small businesses.

In those beginning steps of planning your business, pay attention to your own passion for it, Hode says.

“If you’re having a hard time dedicating yourself to putting together the plan, you’re probably going to face a lot more challenges along the way in running and operating the business,” she says.

In a nation of innovators, a lot of people have a lot of good ideas, Hode says. “It’s those…able to execute them successfully” that make the difference.

Look in Wednesday’s Observer for “ShopTalk: Your Small Business Help Center,” a weekly two-page package of news, profiles and tips.