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Escape the slump

The back end of 2021 could be your best yet, says our columnist Catherine Erdly. Here’s how to get there...

It’s been a tough year for many small businesses. When the pandemic first hit, smart stores had to pivot to selling online – a particular challenge for those businesses which have traditionally sold only through a bricks and mortar shop.

Then you were faced with a series of lockdowns, only to discover 2021 has so far delivered a mixed bag in terms of online sales.

A distracted customer never makes for great sales in retail, and over the last few months the customer has been highly distracted as life begins to return to something vaguely resembling normal.

Businesses that saw a bump in sales during lockdowns have had to re-adjust to where their customers are now, and make changes once again to their business model and their way of communicating to their customers.

With many small business owners also recovering personally from the stresses of family worries and home schooling, the first few months of 2021 felt hugely challenging. This is especially so for any businesses with physical stores – preparing them to be ‘COVID-Safe’, adapting to last minute government guidelines, coping with staffing levels and encouraging customers back inside the actual store.

One of the most important jobs for business owners is to ‘step out’ of the business for an hour or two and look at the bigger picture. The fourth quarter is rapidly approaching, so now is the time to take stock and prepare mentally to move forward in an energised and positive way.

Step 1 Self-care

Before you leap to the next action on your ‘to do’ list for your business, check in with yourself.

If you are feeling burnt out, tired, disheartened and frustrated then you need to take care of yourself before you can do anything to move the business forward.

Have you taken a break recently? Taken some time where you've been able to step away from the business and really focus on yourself? Often we find ourselves losing motivation and focus when we've just been trying to push things for extended periods.

Step 2 Celebrate and look forward

Small business owners are notoriously bad at giving themselves credit for what goes right. They are usually so busy looking at the next task or juggling hundreds of plates so that actually recognising successes is quickly forgotten.

One of the first things to do as part of a recalibration of your business is to make a list of everything that has gone well in the last 12 months. Celebrate your highs, your best-selling products and the interesting and exciting projects that you’ve been involved in.

All of these will build a positive picture that will remind you of how far you have come and put you in the right frame of mind to move forward.

Once you’ve given time for this you can look forward.

Have you ever taken the time to visualise where you want to be with your business in one year's time? How about five years from now, or even ten? Make sure that what you are building suits you as a person.

Your business should bring you joy – if not all of the time (everyone has bad days) but most of the time. Writing out your vision for your business, and more importantly, your ideal life might sound like a wishy-washy exercise, but it’s actually a deeply practical way of checking in and making sure that you’re building what you want, and not someone else’s idea of what your business ‘should’ be.

Step 3 Blockers

What are the blockers and bottlenecks in your business? What are the most pressing issues right now? Where are you missing the skills and opportunities that you need to move forward?

This exercise works well as a ‘brain dump’. Take a blank piece of paper and for five minutes write down everything that you feel is holding you back.

Now take the top three issues that you feel are having the biggest impact and spend a further five minutes on each one coming up with some ideas about how you can tackle them.

This gets you to focus on the biggest issues in your business so you can come up with some proactive solutions as opposed to feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly endless list of problems in your mind.

Step 4 Find your customer and build relationships

Your customer should always guide you wherever you are. As you put together your plans, you should always ask yourself. ‘Where is my customer mentally right now, and how can I help them?’

In the pandemic, businesses did this brilliantly as they focused on products that distracted children stuck at home, connected loved ones far away or helped people practise a hobby from the comfort of their own living room.

Now you need to put yourself in their shoes once again. What are they worried about? What are they excited about? Another helpful exercise is to spend 10 minutes writing about your customer at this very moment. How do your products fit into their life as it is right now?

Most importantly, you need to keep nurturing those customer relationships that you started during the pandemic. If you had a big boost of sales during lockdown then you will have introduced a whole range of new customers to your wonderful business.

Are you making the most of those relationships? How can you build on and improve them? No one is more likely to buy from you than someone who has already bought from you. With that in mind, how can you reach out to your existing customers and offer them something that is perfect for them at this present time?

Step 5 Put together a plan

You have an idea of where you want to go, so come up with some creative ideas to overcome your blockers and put your customer firmly in your sights. Now is the time to put together a plan of action.

Looking ahead, what do you want to have achieved by September? What do you need to be doing right now to get you ready? September will lead us straight into Christmas and the fourth quarter, so it’s good to start getting a plan together now.

If your to-do list between now and the end of September feels overwhelming, try choosing just one thing. What is that something that you can do to move your business forward? When overwhelm threatens, bringing it back to the most pressing action that you can take will help you focus.

Chances are, you’ll achieve much more than just that one thing, but in this way you’ll have a place to start which is the hardest part.

Catherine is a small business retail expert, a contributor, a judge for the Good Retail Awards, is on the Editorial Board of Modern Retail, has featured as an expert commenter in national newspapers, and has been a speaker at various trade shows and industry-led events across the country. Join her at The Resilient Retail Club (

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