Talking Squarely About Seasonal Business Change

Talking Squarely Episode 7 featuring business owners talking about seasonality

Talking Squarely About Seasonal Business Change

Season 1, Episode 7

A little bit about this episode featuring business owners talking about seasonal changes…

Seasonality plays an important role in many businesses’ annual plans, as it often helps predict the ebb and flow of sales. But with the current state of the world, certain guaranteed seasonal boosts are less likely to come to fruition. We sit down with three business owners to discuss how they’re preparing for these unexpected changes.

This episode features Suzanna Cameron, owner of Stems in Brooklyn, NY; Kim Moistner-Bartlett, Kona Ice Franchise Owner and Chief Learning Officer; and Beau Coan, Chief Operations Officer of Papa Noel Christmas Trees in Texas. Want to know a little bit more about our host? Follow Square’s Nelson Murray for more.

For seasonal business owners, cash flow has always been both predictable and unpredictable. The busiest times of the year yielded the greatest revenue, and those windows were very narrowly defined before a global pandemic.

“Well, for us, cash is king, for sure. I mean, we make a hundred percent of our profit in about four weeks every year. We have one season, we have one harvest, and this is it.” says Papa Noel COO Beau Coan “So on good years, we’re able to get that throughout twelve or I guess ten months to the next selling season and on short years, we have to go get a line of credit, but either way, we’re coming back.”

Cash flow management wasn’t the only thing top of mind for seasonal small business owners like Coan. For Kona Ice Franchise Owner and Chief Learning Officer Kim Moistner-Bartlett, pivoting has been crucial for their business during the pandemic.

“That’s like the keyword that we’ve clung to, is pivot and looking for opportunities, doing things differently, knowing that customers are more mobile, there’s no schools, there’s no events, there’s no festivals, there’s no things happening that we would traditionally do.” she says. “We pivoted, we created a delivery system and started creating delivery radius and getting Kona’s to their doorstep and really changed how we did things.”

Suzanna Cameron, owner of Stems, says that having savings and a line of credit helped the business build a buffer for unpredictable times. “If we’re not working, we’re not making money, right? The other side though is with the events and weddings, we do take deposits up front, but that does create a buffer, which is kind of nice and I’ve always been a bit conservative, “ she says “So when this all hit, I thought, “Okay, well I have some options.” And really it was because I am an established business and having good credit and something to fall back on is always helpful to know that’s there.”

Talking Squarely, a Podcast by Square

There isn’t one playbook for running a business and the decisions business owners face are rarely straightforward. Every other week, we’ll bring together independent business owners to have frank discussions and share their perspectives on some of the most pressing issues impacting their lives—from the changing rules of commerce to work-life balance.

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Full transcript below:

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

I think because of everything that’s happened, I’m a little less about looking at developing plans for when things go wrong, but kind of shifting, a paradigm shift if you will and I think now I want to make plans for, what if things go right?

Nelson Murray (host):

Hi, I’m Nelson Murray, and this is Talking Squarely. In this series, we bring together independent business owners to have frank discussions and share their perspectives on some of the most pressing issues impacting their lives and livelihoods. Many business owners have busy seasons and slow seasons, but for some, that window of activity is where they make most, if not all of their sales. From Christmas trees to shaved ice, these business owners spend their year optimizing for this short window of activity or developing new ways to maintain revenue in the off period. Today, we talk with three seasonal business owners about how they prepare for their busy seasons, what their businesses look like during the rest of the year, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped those plans.

Beau Coan:

We focus solely around the Christmas timeframe but our planning is pretty much year round.

Nelson Murray (host):

That’s Beau Coan, who runs Papa Noel Christmas Trees, based out of Austin and San Antonio, Texas. While Beau does his sales toward the end of the year, the rest of his time is spent securing locations and inventory for the holiday rush.

Beau Coan:

It starts probably around April and then that’s when we traveled to Austin to scout for any potential new locations and also to kind of cement our relationships with our current landlords and try to secure the locations that we’ll use. And then from there it’s pretty much the rest of the year until we’re actually in Texas selling trees. We have about 11,000 trees that we sell annually. So that takes some planning to get the right order, the right sizes. So in November and December is when we are doing all our business and we’re in full operation then, but our planning pretty much starts when Christmas ends for season,

Nelson Murray (host):

For Suzanna Cameron, the owner of Stems flower shop, based in Brooklyn, New York, dividing her time between running a retail flower shop and a wedding and event business means her busy season is all year.

Suzanna Cameron:

The wedding industry is jumping and jiving from April until about November and then we’ve got December, January, February, March, kind of. We might have a few events here and there, but certainly not where we need teams ready to go onsite every single weekend. Like Beau was saying with seasonality, there’s always a lot of prep work to do. And there’s a lot of preparation that has to happen outside of those months to make sure that systems flow smoothly, and to make sure we redo our catalogs and website and re-shoot product images. So we always make use of that time and we don’t even call it our slow time anymore. We’re like, “Oh, it’s just when we’re not doing weddings,” but we’re still showing up to work and game planning for the rest of the year.

Nelson Murray (host):

Like Beau and Suzanna, our third seller, Kim Moistner-Bartlett is no stranger to busy and slow seasons. As a franchise owner of Kona Ice, based in Rock County, Wisconsin, Kim’s sales activity changes with the weather, literally.

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

Well, obviously Kona Ice is selling shaved ice, and so we are very popular in the warm summer months but a little less popular when it’s really cold outside. My franchise is based in Wisconsin and my season is very, very short. So I have maybe four and a half, five months tops, where I am out generating sales and delivering special events. So I have a lot of time in the off season. I even have a couple of months where we’re closed completely and we’re not even open at all to customers. So there’s a lot that happens in the downtime to make sure that we are maximizing the peak times that we have in the business.

So the awesome thing about Kona Ice is that we are a hundred percent mobile and so I work really hard to maximize as many pieces of equipment as I can during our peak time, so that I’m taking advantage of every opportunity that comes my way during those summer months. Because I know that once October hits in Wisconsin, it gets pretty cold. The cool thing about Kona Ice is depending upon where a franchise is located, their downtime varies depending upon their location. So I imagine the folks that are in North Carolina and Texas and Florida have far less downtime than I do with my franchise in Wisconsin.

Nelson Murray (host):

You’ve all touched on the fact that even though you have a peak season where your sales activity is higher, a lot of your time is spent planning to maximize that time. So how do you go about generating revenue during the off season?

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

One of the cool things about Kona Ice is that because it’s mobile, we have the trucks and we have kiosks and trailers but we also have what’s called a Kona Ice Mini. And it’s actually a unit that can go indoors and so that is a great unit that I use in my franchise in October and November, and then again in March and April. We partner with so many schools because we do lots of fundraising and people aren’t always aware of that about Kona Ice. We do a lot of givebacks and fundraising, so we have tons of school events during those cooler months, we do things like basketball tournaments, wrestling tournaments, show choir, competitions, you name it, Kona Ice can be there, both inside and outside. So taking advantage of that indoor unit really helps me to extend my season.

Suzanna Cameron:

So Stems does something a little different. We have a retail shop, so we’ve got a business that has some consistent revenue throughout the whole year. So what we do is we sort of consolidate staffing during the slower months. We also offer workshops. So we do in-person floral arranging workshops at different levels, and we host private workshops as well to just sort of maximize our space and give people an opportunity to come in, and let’s say, you’re having a baby shower or a birthday party, you want to bring your friends in, have some wine and cake, makes some flowers, we use our space in that way.

Nelson Murray (host):

I’m curious for each of you, what role cash plays, as opposed to other forms of capital, in sustaining you and giving you flexibility during the off season, is that actually the most important asset or have you found that there are other things that you rely on buffering you when sales are slower?

Beau Coan:

Well, for us, cash is king, for sure. I mean, we make a hundred percent of our profit in about four weeks every year. We have one season, we have one harvest, and this is it. So on good years, we’re able to get that throughout twelve or I guess ten months to the next selling season and on short years, we have to go get a line of credit, but either way, we’re coming back.

Nelson Murray (host):

Suzanna, what’s your relationship with cash versus credit or other resources that sustain you in your off season?

Suzanna Cameron:

We’re definitely a cash run business with deliveries, as a retail store, cash in, cash out, that’s how we make our money. If we’re not working, we’re not making money, right? The other side though is with the events and weddings, we do take deposits up front, but that does create a buffer, which is kind of nice and I’ve always been a bit conservative, so I try to keep savings in the savings account and I do have a line of credit that’s available. I moved locations two years ago and took out a line of credit to do some of that moving, so I had that available. So when this all hit, I thought, “Okay, well I have some options.” And really it was because I am an established business and having good credit and something to fall back on is always helpful to know that’s there. But I mean, obviously cash is always king in retail world too.

Nelson Murray (host):

Let’s pivot to marketing. Suzanna, you mentioned workshops being a part of your business model. I have to imagine that you’re publicizing them, how are you going about doing that?

Suzanna Cameron:

I think because we have a retail store, people come in a lot and they know about us just from having a store and a physical space. We also do a lot of deliveries, so when we send our deliveries out, we advertise there with a little marketing tool that says we do workshops, that way every single person that’s getting a delivery knows we also do that. So a lot of it has really been customer led. We don’t do a lot of marketing. I don’t spend a lot of money on marketing. I send out a mailer when I remember to, and we really do everything on Instagram.

Nelson Murray (host):

I’ll kick this one over to you, Beau, let’s talk a little bit about staying in touch with your customers throughout the year. Obviously, given that you indicated that November and December are your peak months, what tactics have you employed, whether it be kind of traditional marketing or other methods of staying in touch with your current and prospective customers throughout the year?

Beau Coan:

We have been in business for about 40 years now, and so for almost that entire time, we’ve used mass mail marketing. For a long time we spent a lot of resources, time and money into creating a very nice newsletter that we would send out to our customers. But as our customers increased, that price increased as well. We still do a newsletter closer around Thanksgiving, that is like a reminder, we’re coming. These are our new locations, but throughout the year we do the occasional Instagram post, Facebook post, every once in a while we’ll do an email. The nature of our business is Christmas, and we have to be a little careful on really pushing Christmas too early, a lot of people don’t like that. So we’re pretty light on our outreach throughout most of the year, but as it gets closer towards November, December, we really start amping up the social media posts and the emails, that kind of thing.

Nelson Murray (host):

Kim, maybe I’ll kick this one over to you, what kinds of customer outreach tactics have you employed for Kona Ice?

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

I think that social media is really significant, big way for us to keep in touch with customers. So Facebook is the medium that I subscribe to most. We have the most interactions with our customers on Facebook. We’ll do some emailing, digital marketing, trying to keep ourselves in front of our customers, even when they’re not seeing the trucks out and we’re not delivering any events. So social media has been for me personally, just a fantastic way to maintain those connections with customers.

Nelson Murray (host):

Beau, you explained how you’ve tried a variety of tactics over the 40 years, I think that you said you’ve been operating. So I have to imagine that each of the three of you have really tried through trial and error, a variety of ways of engaging your customers to make sure that these peak seasons are as successful as they can be.

What are some things that you’ve learned and maybe some things that you now avoid doing, that have helped you with your marketing tactics and making sure that you get as much out of that peak season as you can for each of your businesses? Maybe Kim, you could start us off.

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

Okay. Well, I think our situation’s a little bit different, cause we’re not independent, Kona Ice is a franchise. So my situation’s a little bit different. I own a franchise in Wisconsin, but I’m the chief learning officer for Kona Ice corporate, which is based in Florence, Kentucky. And so, because we are such a large organization, we have 1200 franchisees throughout the United States. We have so many resources that we utilize to stay connected to do outreach. We have a creative team. We’re constantly doing things to stay in front of our customers at all times during the year.

Suzanna Cameron:

Kim, can I ask you a question about your marketing?

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

Yes.

Suzanna Cameron:

What are you telling your customers in your off months? I know the locations are so different, but what are some - how would you keep your business out in front of people? And what are you telling people when they’re not buying icees? What do you tell them? What content are you giving them? Or what are you pushing at that stage?

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

Sure. So we have three months where my franchise in particular, we just closed. So I say we’re closed from Thanksgiving until Valentine’s day. I try to utilize that downtime to do a lot of customer outreach, a lot of one-on-one touch points, the holiday cards, the greetings, the phone calls, the interactions, we’re always in front of them, even when they’re not thinking about shaved ice in the month of December, when they can just scoop a cup of snow right off the ground, we still want our brand to be strong and to stay in front of customers. And so I really credit that to… I mean, social media is pretty significant and then email marketing as well, and then our website, and that has been really effective.

Nelson Murray (host):

Suzanna, I’m curious, you mentioned that Instagram is the channel that you have gravitated toward for your business. What was it that lead you to Instagram and what have you found that you like about it and why is it effective for you?

Suzanna Cameron:

I started on Instagram when I started my business, which was just starting. I started selling bouquets out of a bar and so it was so easy to be like, “Here’s a bouquet and you can grab a beer at the bar here.” It just seemed intuitive. So I really used that and people could see me, I could do the Instagram stories, which really helps. And once you get to a certain follower account, you can do a swipe up feature, which is nice, you can connect products, right? And I like to share with people, debunk things about being a florist, that aren’t always cute or talk about sustainability since that’s a big part of my business, and we do a lot of giveback stuff too. So there’s always just stuff to talk about, and different people to collaborate with and that seems to have just been the platform that works the best for us. And we’ve tried Facebook, but the connection and networking on Facebook isn’t where our strong suit is.

Nelson Murray (host):

We’ve probably all heard many stories about businesses having to adapt and try to find new ways of reaching their customers while balancing their safety and their customer safety. What advice might you offer to another business owner who isn’t used to this, or isn’t familiar with these kinds of pivots on ways that they can try to find a sense of stability in this moment?

Beau Coan:

It seems like, personally speaking, our business is very rarely stable. At least it seems that way a lot. Granted, we’ve been in business for 40 years, so I guess definitely there is some stability there. It just always seems to us that when Christmas is finally over and we’re back home with our families and we kind of take a breath again, we’re like, “Wow, that actually worked again.” So I think being able to just shift your focus on a dime, for us is very important and being flexible to where you don’t get discouraged when doors slam in your face, that’s something that we’ve experienced throughout our years, as far as landlords turning us down last minute.

Suzanna Cameron:

Beau, what do you think is going to happen with Christmas trees this year? Do you think people are going to buy trees like they normally do?

Beau Coan:

Yeah, I do. I think they’re going to buy trees like they normally do and I am hoping that more people will come out that don’t usually buy a tree. In our industry, we’ve been talking to different growers and wholesalers all throughout the country and everyone is primed for a really successful tree season this year. So I hope that that comes true.

Suzanna Cameron:

I was just thinking, if less people are traveling for the holidays, more people might find their own tree at home.

Beau Coan:

Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s one thing we’ve actually really considered is, usually people do travel for Christmas and families get together and so you’ll have these large families in a house sometimes with one tree. And so this year it might be a little different, all those families now might need a tree.

Suzanna Cameron:

Or they get a bigger tree because they’re like, “Hey, we didn’t go on vacation, so we’re going to get a fifteen foot tree this year.

Beau Coan:

That’s fine too.

Nelson Murray (host):

Right. What are some of the experiences that you’ve had as a seasonal business owner, that apply to what others are experiencing during the pandemic?

Beau Coan:

It’s a little cliche, but have the right attitude, always have that attitude that you will succeed and get through this and if you really start thinking that things are just not panning out the way you want it, then that’s pretty much what will happen. I think that the best advice I can give in these uncertain times and anyone really, is just to keep moving forward. That’s the most important thing, that’s what always has gotten us through.

Nelson Murray (host):

Kim. What about you? What were you able to do as a franchise owner?

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

One of the things I think that we’ve really done, is we’ve learned to pivot and do things… That’s like the keyword that we’ve clung to, is pivot and looking for opportunities, doing things differently, knowing that customers are more mobile, there’s no schools, there’s no events, there’s no festivals, there’s no things happening that we would traditionally do. And so instead we took our business to the customers. We pivoted, we created a delivery system and started creating delivery radius’s and getting Kona’s to their doorstep and really changed how we did things. But I think the key to our succeeding and thriving in a pandemic was that we were willing to think outside the box and do things differently and try something new, I think that’s really what success is all about. Life is unpredictable and when things happen, how do we respond?

Nelson Murray (host):

Suzanna, you’ve got a brick and mortar location. You, you can’t move to where your customers are. How have you adapted to changes during the pandemic and what advice might you give to other business owners who have brick and mortar locations like you do?

Suzanna Cameron:

Yeah. So I think number one is, if you have an opportunity to offer a delivery service and maybe you haven’t in the past, now is definitely the time to do it. I think there’s a huge demand for delivery and we’ve seen it in our own business. We already had delivery set up. So I mean, it doubled with the pandemic. Other things fell off, like we didn’t have our weddings, but that service is really what people want right now.

Nelson Murray (host):

What kinds of things worry you as it relates to either just the normal course of your business and seasonal operation or some of the unique challenges that 2020 have kind of brought about for the entire country?

Suzanna Cameron:

I think some of the things that worry me specifically with business is that, we’ve re-booked a lot of clients for 2021, right? So we’re looking forward to this next year of having a lot of weddings and events, and my thought is like, well, what if those can’t happen either? What if we start pushing it back and back and back, and it goes to 2022, and you start looking ahead at your numbers and your revenue or projected revenue and think, “Okay, well, if these don’t happen, are we okay where we’re at right now?” And then with New York, if there’s another spike and we have to close our retail store again, that’s going to affect our numbers and we’ll have to cut staff again. And I’ve always been a person who’s thinking about the future and like most entrepreneurs, thinking about, how can I grow my business? And how can we build this department or refine the system? And a lot of that has had to come to a halt and it’s been a focus of day-by-day, step-by-step mentality to kind of keep things moving.

Nelson Murray (host):

Beau, why don’t we have you take that one? What worries you as an independent business owner? You shared some of your kind of ongoing concerns, but as someone who for 40 years running, has managed to keep things going, I have a feeling you’ve got a good track record for adapting to change.

Beau Coan:

Well, yeah I learned from that from my dad, he’s the one that has the 40 year title under his belt and I’m working on year 13 or 14 right now, but yeah, for sure. I mean, being able to adapt in a business like ours is paramount. And I guess one thing that we always struggle with every season, is just ensuring that we have the locations that we need to actually set up our businesses. We fluctuate every season between seven to ten, eleven different lots between our two cities we service, and as you can imagine, real estate in Austin and San Antonio changes hands pretty quickly and an empty, nice field next to a highway just simply doesn’t exist very much. We’re very lucky because of our longevity there, that we’ve established some excellent business relationships with landowners who are dear customers as well.

Nelson Murray (host):

Kim, how about you? What is your outlook for the rest of the year and for 2021?

Kim Moistner-Bartlett:

Things are just unpredictable, and I think resiliency learning to improvise, learning to adapt. I always joke. I was a university administrator by trade for many years and we always had contingency plans. We would make all these plans in case things went wrong, and how to continue to deliver services to students. We’re definitely hoping that 2021 looks a little bit better than 2020, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So I think it’s definitely been a unique year.

Nelson Murray (host):

Whether selling Christmas trees or summer treats, our guests work year round to prepare for their busy seasons and find innovative ways to engage customers, utilizing social media marketing, planning out holiday newsletters, they know the importance of thinking on their feet, and in unpredictable times it’s a skill all business owners can hone, no matter their size.

A special thanks to Beau, Suzanna and Kim for their perspectives on running a seasonal business. Papa Noel Christmas Trees has locations across San Antonio and Austin, Texas. You can find them online and the location of their Christmas tree locks this year at papanoeltrees.com. Stems is located in Brooklyn, New York. Follow them on Instagram @stemsbrooklyn, and check them out online at stemsbrooklyn.com. You can find Kona Ice at K-O-N-A-ice.com or keep an eye out for one of the 1200 shaved ice trucks they operate across the U.S. You can also follow them @konaice on all social channels.

You’ve been listening to Talking Squarely, a square production. This episode was produced by Mallory Russell, Cindy Lewis, Kaitlin Keefer, Evan Groll, John Scarpanato and Travis Gonzalez. Our music was composed by Jordain Wallace, with sound recording by Sorrentino Media and Jamie Cohen. I’m Nelson Murray, thanks for listening.

The views and opinions expressed in Talking Squarely are those of our guests and do not reflect the official policy or position of Square.