Latest NFIB Survey Reveals Cautious Optimism Across Small Biz

Nov 11, 2020 • 4 min read
Optimistic businessman looking out the window
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      Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Research Center has published surveys asking business owners about their reactions, struggles, and solutions during this trying period. 

      The surveys have covered topics related to emergency Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, lockdown challenges, and recovery. So far, the NFIB has released 12 surveys related to COVID-19, with 1 survey getting published every 2–4 weeks and the earliest survey appearing in March. 

      Here are a few key highlights from the most recent NFIB survey, conducted from September 28–30, 2020. 

      The Majority of Businesses Have Spent Their Loans

      Of the respondents from this survey, 86% of business owners have spent the PPP loans they received. Through the PPP, small business owners can qualify for loan forgiveness if they follow specific guidelines for how the money is spent: namely, they need to keep all employees on staff with minimal pay cuts. 

      Originally, small businesses had an 8-week period to use these loans, but it was then extended to 24 weeks as the pandemic progressed. 

      Small Businesses Need Additional Assistance 

      While many small business owners have used their loans and qualify for forgiveness, they still need more financial assistance to cover their costs for the months ahead. In the survey, 22% of borrowers state that they will need to lay off employees within the next 6 months. Almost half (49%) of borrowers anticipate needing more financial support in the next 12 months. 

      These percentages have remained consistent from the previous NFIB surveys. They highlight how the pandemic will likely have long-term consequences and that many communities likely haven’t seen the full economic effects of the lockdown period yet. 

      Only Half of Business Owners Are at Pre-Crisis Sales

      Sales across all industries were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as states and local communities went into lockdown. However, the long-term effects of the pandemic have been more varied. When business owners were asked how their sales compared currently to pre-COVID levels, the responses were scattered:

      • 21% of businesses are bringing in 50% or less of sales compared to pre-COVID levels.  
      • 28% of businesses are bringing in 50–74% of sales compared to pre-COVID levels. 
      • 37% of businesses are bringing in 74–100% of sales compared to pre-COVID levels.
      • 17% of businesses have exceeded their pre-COVID sales levels. 

      While it’s encouraging that a large percentage of business owners are getting closer to normal sales levels, about half are still trying to bring in decent numbers to break even or turn a profit. 

      Business Owners Don’t Expect Conditions to Improve This Year

      As business owners enter Q4 of 2020, many are just trying to put the year behind them. Only 10% of business owners expect to reach normal operating levels this year, and only 4% of business owners are at normal operating levels. 

      Meanwhile, 60% of business owners expect conditions to improve in 2021 and 40% expect operations to return to normal in 2022. (The remaining 6% think conditions won’t return to normal until 2023 or beyond.)

      The business owners who expect to wait until 2022 for normal operating conditions are likely counting on the development of a vaccine that is reliable and easily accessible, according to the NFIB. 

      Business Owners Are Requesting Rent and Loan Deferral

      Because business owners have limited income levels right now, many have had to ask for loan deferrals or delays on rent payments in order to cover other essential expenses. A fifth (21%) of business owners who pay rent or mortgage on a property asked about deferring payments, and 65% were granted that deferral. 

      Of the 46% of respondents who have a loan or line of credit, 15% asked for a deferral and 78% were approved. 

      This is another statistic that highlights potential long-term economic growth limits. Companies still owe those funds and may limit their expansion or investment plans in order to pay them off. Americans could feel the economic effects of the pandemic long after the virus is eradicated.  

      Business Interruption Insurance Didn’t Pay Out

      The NFIB reports that only 1/3 of companies are covered by business interruption insurance: a policy that pays when a natural disaster or crisis (like a fire) forces a company to close down. 

      However, those that do have this coverage learned that a health pandemic often isn’t part of their coverage. This meant that, as businesses were forced to close because of state-mandated lockdowns, their insurance providers weren’t willing to provide the relief they needed. 

      What Can We Learn From This Survey?

      The key highlights selected from this month’s NFIB survey reflect the optimism and realities of small business owners during the coronavirus pandemic. While many business owners have seen their sales and traffic levels improve since the spring, they’re also aware that conditions might not improve substantially for another 6 months or longer. Many business owners are also worried about the future and believe that the economy may get worse before it gets better. 

      Keeping a pulse on these views can help companies to make strategic business decisions and understand the actions of their vendors, competitors, and peers.

      About the author
      Derek Miller

      Derek Miller is the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at, 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,, and StartupCamp.

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