Industry Trends

Inflation Hits Small Business: Here’s How to Hit Back

Apr 13, 2022 • 10+ min read
small business inflation
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      Inflation is currently the biggest challenge to small business owners, says a recent study by MetLife & U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It found that 33% of small business owners surveyed ranked inflation as their top concern for Q1 2022—a 14% increase over the last two quarters.

      Inflation isn’t the only challenge facing small business owners. Labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks, and the lockdown aftermath are also keeping many small business owners up at night. But, after more than a year of volatile inflation, it’s clear that small business owners are looking for relief.

      This guide will take a look at how inflation impacts small businesses and what you can do to mitigate the effects of high inflation.

      Who’s impacted by high inflation? Nearly 40% of all businesses reported noticeable price increases impacting their operations.

      What Is Inflation?

      Inflation is a financial response to several pressures within an economy, which causes an increase in the overall price of goods and services as well as a devaluation of its currency.

      When gas prices increase due to the conflict in Ukraine—that’s inflation. When housing prices rise because the demand outpaces the available homes—that’s also inflation.

      Inflation is simply a term used to measure the decline of purchasing power within an economy over a period in time. While most people think negatively of inflation, it’s a natural process within a healthy economy.

      The Federal Reserve (Fed) has set a  target of 1.5% to 2% annual inflation for the US economy. This rate of inflation is considered optimal for growth and keeping money circulating within an economy.

      Chart: US Inflation Calculator

      However, we’re currently in a 13-month stretch of inflation exceeding 2% (5.725% on average). In fact, February 2022 was our highest annual inflation rate (7.9%) over the last 40 years.

      While small businesses can typically handle inflationary spikes, consistently high inflation rates are much harder to overcome—especially without help. 

      How Does Inflation Affect Small Businesses?

      During the 12 months ending in January 2022, every small business, regardless of the industry sector, has experienced an increase in costs. Here’s a sample of some of the increased costs businesses have seen:

      • Electricity: 9.0%
      • Natural gas: 23.8%
      • Other items: 12.3%
      • Food: 7.9%
      • Entertainment: 8.6%
      • Rents (shelter): 4.7%
      • Paper products: 33.4%
      • Shipping: 11.14%
      • Air travel: 26%
      • Truck transportation of freight: 18.3%
      • Maintenance and repair: 18.1%

      Running a small business is challenging, and the last two years have brought about some of the hardest challenges small business owners like yourself have ever faced. Between the pandemic and government-mandated lockdowns to supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, if your small business is still open, it’s due, in large part, to your own fortitude.

      Within all these challenges is a 40-year-high inflation rate. The current level of elevated inflation has and continues to be one of the biggest hurdles for small business owners. While most businesses can weather short-term cost spikes without making significant changes, a 13-month inflationary period is a different story. And, while high inflation is temporary, during the 1970s and 80s, inflation remained above 4% per year for 9 years (1973-1982).

      The effects of high inflation are felt throughout all aspects of your small business. It’s what causes your suppliers to raise their prices, it’s what drives employees to seek higher wages, and it’s what pressures your customers to spend less.

      At the root of all these hurdles is the biggest issue for small businesses dealing with elevated inflation—it makes maintaining a consistent cash flow challenging.

      Consistent cash flow is the key to running a successful small business because it means you’re bringing in more cash than you’re spending. If you’re cash-flow negative, you are spending more than you are making—a recipe for disaster for small businesses that typically don’t have the same financial backing as larger businesses.

      Here are some ways inflation may negatively impact your small business’s cash flow:

      • Increases your costs: Inflation may cause your expenses to increase as the price of supplies, raw materials, and other services needed to operate your business rise.
      • Lowers your profit margin: If you keep your prices the same, elevated input costs will shrink your profit margin—meaning less cash per transaction.
      • Decrease consumer demand: Inflation can cause customers to tighten their wallets and cut back on spending as they prioritize their personal expenses. Additionally, if you choose to raise your prices, you may see a decline in total transactions—Shake Shack saw a decline of 4% in transactions after they raised their prices in 2018. In both cases, fewer customers can lead to less cash coming in.

      Inflation’s Effect on Small Business vs. Big Business

      Regardless of its size, every business feels inflation’s effects—from the local mom-and-pop shop to the largest companies in the world. While the size, market, and industry within which you operate will play a part in how vulnerable your business is to inflation, there is no denying that it will influence you one way or the other.

      Notable brands like Starbucks, Walmart, Smuckers, Jack in the Box, T.J. Maxx, and McDonald’s all discussed inflation’s influence on strategic decision-making on their recent earnings calls. McDonald’s cited a 4% increase in food and paper costs as its reasoning for increasing menu prices by 6% in 2021.

      The main difference between the effects of inflation on big and small business is the flexibility afforded to big business. A recent article from CNN outlines why big companies are not afraid to raise prices in response to inflation, a luxury some small business owners don’t have.

      Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCLH), had this to say about their response to inflation: “Similar to all other industries, we are experiencing upward pressure on costs in certain areas such as food, perishables and other supplies that are impacted by the global supply chain constraints,” and that, “I remember calling my brand presidents into a meeting and asking them to raise prices.”

      The brand equity and market share of most big businesses give them more freedom to raise prices than most small businesses have. Additionally, big businesses have scale and buying power on their side, which allows them to stock up or negotiate better with supply chain partners. Big businesses also have access to more money—providing more financial flexibility during inflationary periods.

      How to Mitigate Inflation’s Effect on Your Small Business’s Cash Flow

      As mentioned above, inflation can throw a wrench in your ability to maintain consistent cash flow. If you do not make strategic changes within your small business to prioritize cash flow during inflationary periods, you may struggle to weather the storm.

      Below are three ways to soften inflation’s effect on your small business’s cash flow. 

      Cut Waste

      Your small business is probably experiencing inflation the most through the increased costs of raw materials, supplies, and services needed to run your company. For example, the cost of beef increased by 7%, which raises $10 of ground beef to $10.70. Restaurants relying on ground beef have to absorb this added expense. 

      Before you start making any major strategic changes, start your conquest of inflation by looking for opportunities to cut waste within your business. Can you pivot from ground beef to ground turkey? Can you find monthly subscriptions or services to cancel? Can you close your business on Mondays because it’s the slowest day of the week?

      If you can cut waste, you can decrease the amount of cash leaving your business—giving you a more consistent cash flow and helping you through inflationary periods.

      Refocus On Profitability

      As the pandemic led many businesses to analyze their model and look for opportunities to run more flexibly, inflation should also cause you to reflect—on profitability.

      All things equal, inflation in your small business means lower margins and less profitability. If you’re spending 10% more on your wholesale products and not raising your prices, you’re lowering your margins. For example, a $5 item that you sell for $7 ($2 profit) now costs you $5.50 and decreases your profit to $1.50 (25% decrease).

      Refocusing on profitability involves looking at your business and making strategic changes designed to raise your profitability. For retailers, this could mean buying in bulk to cut down the price per unit or eliminating underperforming products from your catalog. For service-based businesses, it could mean reevaluating your offers or creating new packages that are more desirable to customers or more profitable.

      You may also decide to simply raise your prices to offset your added expenses—which an estimated 47% of small businesses have already done. While this can help you regain some of the profitability lost by inflation, it’s only passing the issue along and not actually solving it. 

      Use Financing to Manage Cash Flow

      One of the most effective solutions to inflation involves leaning on small business financing. There are many flexible funding options out there to help small businesses weather financial storms like inflationary periods. Solutions like a business line of credit or a merchant cash advance are options worth considering to help with cash flow issues in your company.

      For example, a line of credit gives you the freedom to draw cash as needed from your lender. You can be approved for as much as $500,000, and you’ll only be charged against what you actually borrow. Once you pay it back, your credit returns to the full amount, which is available again whenever you need it.

      By using financing, you’ll always have consistent cash flow to keep your business operating as usual. You can use financing to cover payroll during down months or to invest in more stock to avoid supply chain issues, but more than anything—you can rest easy knowing that you have a financial safety net to catch you should you fall.

      Don’t Let Inflation Get You Down

      Small business owners, like yourself, are the heart of our country. Your resilience and grit has helped you push through the pandemic and lockdown, so don’t let a little inflationary period get you down.

      With the right strategy and execution, you can not just get your business into a more stable cash flow situation—you can set your business up to run more efficiently moving forward.

      Interested in financing? Find out what your small business is eligible for with Lendio’s 15-minute online application.

      Additional resources and data sources:
      https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-price-outlook/summary-findings/
      https://fred.stlouisfed.org/categories/33583
      https://www.bls.gov/ppi/
      https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/construction-costs-hit-highest-spike-in-50-years/2891677/
      https://www.agc.org/sites/default/files/users/user21902/PPI%20Tables%202022_01.pdf
      https://www.cnbc.com/2022/03/10/rising-airfares-are-giving-people-spring-break-sticker-shock.html
      https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/inflation-rate-cpi

       

      Disclaimer: The information provided in this post does not, and is not intended to, constitute business, legal, tax, or accounting advice and is provided for general informational purposes only. Readers should contact their attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor to obtain advice on any particular matter.
      About the author
      Derek Miller

      Derek Miller is the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at Great.com, the co-founder of Lofty Llama, and a marketing consultant for small businesses. He specializes in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing, and his work has been featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy, Score.org, and StartupCamp.

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