2 small retailers championing change in Washington

Small business owners connect with members of Congress to tell retail’s story

NRF is gearing up to celebrate small business in a big way at the Retail Advocates Town Hall on May 4. Taking place in conjunction with Small Business Week, the event convenes small retailers from across the country for exclusive conversations with members of the House Small Business Committee.

Joining us in our celebration are co-hosts Margaret Barrow, founder and CEO of It’s NOLA in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Danny Reynolds, owner of Stephenson’s of Elkhart in Elkhart, Ind. Ahead of the event on May 4, we spoke with Barrow and Reynolds about their small business journeys.

How long have you been in retail and/or in your business?

Barrow: This has been an incredible journey. I started the business in 2018 because a group of students and mentees at my college insisted the homemade snacks I brought to class should be in stores so others could enjoy them.

Margaret Barrow
Margaret Barrow,
​​​​​​​founder and CEO of It's NOLA

It’s been three years of learning not only how to run a business, but how businesses are valued and specifically how some businesses are valued more than others. I never imagined I would experience how marginalized certain businesses are, and that this dream/business would require the power of my ability to form a network of people who may not know that they share my values to lift up people rather than continue to ignore and unconsciously oppress.

You cannot become a producer if the tools and opportunities are set aside for the same people all the time. My hope and efforts are to disrupt this thinking.

Reynolds: Stephenson’s of Elkhart is celebrating 90 years “in fashion” this year. The store has been owned and managed by my family since 1964. Consequently, I grew up a retail brat, and came into the business after graduating college in 1994 (although I started working summers in the shipping and receiving department in high school).

It’s been a challenging and amazing 27 years. I relish the idea that stores like ours don’t really exist anymore, and are beating the odds with hard work, grit and determination. And I am thrilled by the fact that my daughter is graduating college this spring, planning to join the business and is just as stubborn as I am, and a whole lot smarter!

Why should your fellow small retailers join you virtually on May 4 for the Retail Advocates Town Hall?

Barrow: Small businesses remain the backbone of American businesses and each one of us started with a dream to take an idea and make it into a viable company. As a woman and Black business owner, I have experiences that speak to the challenges and struggles many of us face and that deserve to be represented.

Danny Reynolds
Danny Reynolds,
owner of Stephenson's of Elkhart

I am attending and participating because I care about what is happening to the small business community and stand to advocate for change and to insist on addressing performative support for minority businesses.

Reynolds: As stated above, Stephenson’s has a great story to tell. Hard work, resilience, patience, customer service, advocacy and community support have all played a big role in retail survival. Our store opened in 1931, during the Great Depression, so we learned survival skills early, but have had to continually find ways to succeed, through evolution and innovation, and meeting the customer “where they are” in their life and our world.

These lessons hold invaluably true, after the last year we’ve all had. We hope our story can encourage and inspire others in their businesses!

How have small businesses demonstrated resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Barrow: Resilience, persistence, luck and some good old-fashioned patience have been demonstrated by millions of small businesses. Unfortunately, for tens of thousands of small businesses, none of these value characteristics mattered.

Many of us who are still running our businesses have taken on more debt. For some time, information has been slow in coming, and the experts couldn’t really tell us what we needed to know. What I discovered during this pandemic is that small businesses do have power and agency. We can change the rules when we raise our voices and concerns as a collective.

"Delivering product locally, or offering private, personal shopping experiences in a clean, safe environment is just the start."

Danny Reynolds, owner of Stephenson's of Elkhart

This experience continues to challenge my patience, but I have found hope in my peers as we stand together to demand that we be treated with the dignity we deserve. There’s so much to do to restore broken and damaged foundations. My hope is that there’s a way to not only support those who continue to fight for their businesses but also to find a way to revive dreams.

Reynolds: I touched on this above, but so much depends on simply putting the customer first. Go the extra mile and offer personal touches that the big guys can’t. Delivering product locally, or offering private, personal shopping experiences in a clean, safe environment is just the start.

Adapting merchandise mixes to offer more styles that work for current lifestyles, and meeting customers “where they are,” both literally and figuratively, is key. It’s also a great time to remind customers about your business’s community support and involvement.

Right now, especially, people feel the desire to shop local, and support those who have supported them. Times like these are an important reminder why it’s important to align with charitable organizations, or even just sponsor a Little League team. Be there for your community, and they will be there for you.

What are some ways you have benefitted from working with and membership in NRF?

Barrow: When I started my business, I was concerned solely with how I was going to get people to buy my product. I was concerned with setting up the business and creating a foundation. What I’ve learned from joining NRF is you have to get scrappy and participate in the legislative process.

Join us

Register now for the Retail Advocates Town Hall to learn more about small businesses and evolving public policy.

My voice means something, and my experiences are just as important as any other business owner. The network opened my eyes to the power legislatures have because we give it to them. We [businesses] have power when we act together. We’re not alone and we can make demands.

Reynolds: Our relationship with NRF has truly been priceless. The connections made with fellow retailers, and the insight gained from NRF events and information, benefit us daily. But the best part has been the opportunities to advocate with our nation’s leaders on issues that are important to retailers.

From credit card fees to tariff concerns, I have seen, firsthand, that we are able to offer a collective voice, and make a difference. Prior to our involvement in NRF, I never realized our elected officials actually had an interest in their constituents’ concerns. They do!

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