The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce’s Nova committee, which serves micro, small, and medium businesses (up to 250 employees), took the initiative in January 2021 to develop a survey of the impact and responses of these types of business to the pandemic. The objective was to gain a greater insight to what was happening on the ground nationally, and the strategies employed to adapt to critical changes in doing business, to be shared with other Chamber members, the public, and government.
While we were hoping for a large response rate, we did get 61 businesses to provide survey data, which makes generalisations a more difficult task. The respondents who were primarily from the service sector (62 per cent), were spread out over the size categories, with 66 per cent having markets in TT only, and most have been making a sustainable profit for over five years before the pandemic struck.
Having noted that, the survey results paint a picture of challenges for businesses, of which the top four, in order of reported severity, are:
1. Managing cash flow (being able to pay all the bills as they come due)
2. Loss of business through reduced sales
3. Uncertainties about government policy and support
4. Accessing capital (foreign exchange or short-term loans)
The responses of businesses to the pandemic have been to improve on their marketing by utilising (more) digital media, as opposed to more traditional strategies and to take more orders online and make more home deliveries. On the operational side, some have improved their internal processes in what appears to be some form of digitalisation (such as databases, specialised apps, or internet interfaces), while 51 per cent indicated they have created new products that better fit the times. When queried about post-covid19 challenges, a permanent loss of business was ranked highest, followed by substitute products that displace their own, and access to capital.
Finally, a question asked how the government should be assisting businesses. The dominant response here was tax deferral, followed by a number of almost equally weighted recommendations, such as, access to foreign exchange, assistance with payroll and overheads (during shutdowns), low-interest loans, training, export assistance, speeding up VAT refunds, reducing red tape, and to come up with a comprehensive plan that addresses both during (rescue) and after the pandemic (recovery).
On the business side, the following recommendations emerged from the survey.
1. If you have not done so already, you need to set up a cash flow forecast system that looks out at least six months to a year based on your best data on sales and expenses to identify possible times when you could go below breakeven (into the red) and make plans for them ahead of time
2. You need to explore options for access to capital from your bank, loan institutions, investors, angels, or other sources, so that if needed, you can put an agreement together in short order to get funds
3. You need to get closer to your customers to see how their needs are changing both during and after the pandemic so you can put things in place to maintain or adapt to their needs
4. Explore other strategies for marketing even within the digital media domain, keep experimenting till you find something that works better than what you have been doing
5. You need to start reading more on how to digitalise your business in your industry for your size of firm, then talk to others that have started to do that, then prioritise your needs and draft a plan and get technical assistance to start implementing it, as time and funds permit.
The Chamber thanks the Nova committee (Dr John A Gedeon) for contributing this article.