Furniture store fire in Salem, Oregon

In honor of Black Friday and our consumer driven society, let’s imagine life without business. How many businesses do you patronize? How would you function without them?

Start with stores. Routinely, you visit grocery stores, banks, gas stations, the post office, and perhaps your favorite superstore. Once in a while, you check out the mall, the home center, movies, or restaurants. How about your morning coffee stop? If you shop on-line, for essentials or for fun things (I’m a Mp3 collector, so iTunes or the Amazon Mp3 stores see me almost daily), that counts as well. And don’t forget important businesses, like doctors and pharmacies.

There are background businesses, such as phone (land and mobile), power, garbage, water, and sewer (“essentials”), plus things like cable, internet, newspaper, and even gardeners (anything with a monthly bill). Although not strictly business, you also use government services such as roads, street lights, police, fire, and the post man (neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet…but possibly flood, tornado, or earthquake).

As you can tell, the list goes on and on and on. Try this consciousness raising exercise –  for just one week, write down every business or service you visit or use – it is astonishing. Do it in a bill paying week, so you remember your behind the scenes support.

Now imagine one month without any of them. If that month started just 5 minutes from now, what would you do? Welcome to the world of disaster!

Damage to Haiti Business district after earthquake. Photo by United Nations Development Programme.

Now circle the businesses on your list that pose a problem if they suddenly disappear. Hopefully, you discover many things are not essential. You might even permanently improve your spending habits after a disaster by getting used to life without these! On the other hand, the circled ones provide a guide for much of your emergency planning.

An obvious solution is building up your stash of supplies, but there are limits. For example, it’s easy to plan for 3 or even 7 days without gas or water, but a whole month? Other limits include insurance allowing only 30 days of a prescription or security issues with large amounts of cash hidden under the mattress. In addition,  90% of you don’t really have adequate emergency supplies, even when you say you do.

We Need Business

Most of us need at least some businesses and services. The real question is whether businesses stay open, or at least reopen quickly after a disaster. Statistics are not in our favor. At least 25% of closed businesses never reopen, and others take a very long time.

The answer is a business concept called emergency operations and business continuity planning – a bunch of fancy words that basically mean 1) does the business have an immediate plan for when an emergency occurs – to keep employees, customers, merchandise, and the building safe,  and 2) does the business have plans for how to reopen after a disaster, despite damaged infrastructure, like power or transportation?

Most governmental agencies have plans (often required by law). Most businesses do not have plans, including some considered essential (doctors, pharmacies, and even utilities). Why? It takes time and money, and many businesses don’t think the risk is worth the effort. In addition, just like your imaginary home emergency supplies, some businesses say they have plans, but in reality, they are just a file on a computer that no one knows about.

So why should you care? You should care because life will be much more unpleasant without groceries, doctors, and cell phones. American society needs business, even if you believe you are resilient. The presence or absence of business may even determine  whether your community ever recovers to normal after a disaster.

Does Your Employer Have Emergency Plans?

What can you do? First of all, make sure your own employer has a plan, and that everyone knows it. I have a vision of everyone suddenly running to their computers in the middle of an earthquake, trying to remember what the emergency plan says. If your employer doesn’t have a plan, find out why. Often, one or two enthusiastic employees will inspire a change. Second, start questioning businesses you patronize about their plans. Business exists to serve the customer. If customers start caring about emergency plans, business will be more likely to start planning.

So Happy (or Unhappy) Black Friday, depending on your outlook. (Perhaps you should buy emergency supplies instead of toys at Toy R’Us.) If nothing else, use your shopping days to consciously start thinking about business. Come Monday, check in with your employer and find out what your own emergency plans are. It’s a good place to start.

In your quest, please add comments about what you find, both good and bad, for the businesses in your communities. Let’s share the knowledge.

Stay safe,

Sheila

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