Surviving Seasonal Sales Slumps

Chokecherries. Wild plums. Currants. Sandcherries. These are the fruits that bloom wildly on Snake Falls Ranch in rural Nebraska. Every summer, these are also the fruits for which Annie and David Kime venture out into the canyons surrounding the Snake River to harvest. And one year later, these are the fruits that Annie will transform into 15,000 jars of jams and jelly in the commercial kitchen she's built in her home 35 miles from the nearest town of 2,500 people.

Aside from the difficulties inherent in such a rural enterprise, Annie also has to deal with the most fickle of business partners: Mother Nature. If a spring frost comes late, Annie has no crop to harvest. Even when the seasons do show up on time, Annie must still plan her business around the seasons. The year begins slowly with catch-up work, business planning and vacation time. Come spring, Annie begins to cook the wild fruit into juice for freezing and start making jams and jellies. Summer and autumn are heavy production times, with approximately three weeks of harvesting, then the holidays bring in most of the sales.

Running a seasonal homebased business provides unique challenges. You have to stretch your funds to last a year when you may only be bringing in cash for three or six months. You must learn to prepare for the busy seasons and figure out how best to use your slow season to your business's advantage. And finally, you have to mentally prepare yourself for the rough times. "I know this may sound like a very simple piece of advice, but when times are difficult, I always know it won't remain that way," says Annie, who's seen her share of seasons since starting Annie's Jellies, Etc. LLC in 1996. "It will either get better or worse, and it's up to me to see that it gets better."

Money Survival Strategies
People have an all-too-common inclination to spend, spend, spend when the coffers are full. Rule No. 1 of seasonal businesses: Don't do that.

Are you saving enough cash to get you through the dry times? Compare what you save of your disposable personal income to the national average:
1999: 2.4 percent
2000: 1 percent
February 2001: 1.1 percent
March 2001: 1.3 percent
April 2001: 1.3 percent
May 2001: 1.1 percent
June 2001: 1 percent
July 2001: 2.5 percent
Source:Bureau of Economic Analysis

"Be extremely disciplined," says Mike Marchev, author of Become the Exception and a homebased professional speaker who focuses on sales, customer service and motivation. "My income is flat; it doesn't go up or down. We've learned to live within our means so when things get tough, it doesn't affect us. [With] many people, when they make a lot of money, they spend a lot of money. All of a sudden, the bottom falls out and they're in trouble."

Lorre McKeone, the owner of North Platte, Nebraska-based corporate training and consulting firm The Executive Extra didn't at first recognize the seasonal fluctuations in her business, which caused a cash crunch every year and led her to find part-time jobs a few slow summers.

"In the 'good times,' I wasn't putting aside any money," says McKeone, whose slumps are caused by summer vacations and busy holiday periods. "Then, after a slow time, it would take me a few months to pay my bills and restock depleted materials, so the cash crunch extended into the times I was making money again. I now realize that nearly every business has regular seasonal fluctuations, which you can determine through industry research or discussions with others already in the business. Had I done this initially, I may have been able to make better spending decisions."

McKeone learned to survive her early slow periods by deferring spending, taking less for her personal salary, buying used furniture and equipment, bartering her services and not using a credit card. Now, she saves regularly, encourages clients to schedule during her off season since she's often overbooked in her busy season, and has a year-round contract as a meeting facilitator with the Union Pacific Railroad.

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