Thursday, November 13, 2008

Day Thirteen: Grand Opening/Grand Closing

"Don't look in the window, Honey. It only encourages them."

Peace to One and All:

I apologize for the negative, cryptic tone of yesterday's post. The "doldrums" to which I referred was simply a metaphor for my running out of steam with regard to my posting. The November Project has taken a great deal out of me. Speaking of which, a very special thanks goes out to LadySol.

An area, black-owned business from which I purchased my vast array of fly Kangols recently closed it's doors for good. This bothered me. What disturbed me even more, though, was the fact that I was only slightly surprised by this turn of events. When it comes to African-American owned operations, I've almost come to expect premature closures. Many of us who have patronized our favorite black businesses have been disappointed to learn that, for one reason or another, they were calling it quits. Often, it comes as much of a surprise to the owner as it does to the customer. This phenomenon got me to wondering why such should be the case. Black folks, weaned as we are on consumerism and deprivation, are just as desirous of separating ourselves from our hard-earned cash as anyone else. So why do the places that pop up in our neighborhoods struggle? I've come up with a few reasons.

First, I believe that integration has a great deal to do with it. Black businesses did infinitely better when white businesses didn't cater to us (not that they do now, but at least white store operators allow us to use the same restrooms as their white customers these days). Once integration became the law of the land, black folks couldn't wait to pay for the merchandise that Jim Crow had denied us. This consumer migration sent black-owned stores in predominately black neighborhoods into a permanent tailspin from which they still haven't recovered.

Second, the loss of the black middle class dollar left only those businesses that were able to serve needs that white stores couldn't. These days (and, frankly, I don't know this to be true though I suspect so), a black business owner it is more likely to run a salon or a barbershop than a tax firm. There are still some services that black people only trust other black people to provide, and taxes ain't one of them. This leads to a glut of businesses that provide the same function, which, in turn, produces a situation in which one black business cannibalizes another.

Another reason I believe many black businesses fail is their owners' over-reliance on the idea of black self-patronization. Often, African-American business owners are motivated not only by the spirit of capitalism but by the idea that they are serving their communities' needs. They feel that black folks will support them in their endeavors in part because of the pride that comes from buying from our own. When it comes to the free market however, buyers are motivated by a different desire: to pay less for more. Black businesses, restricted as they are by limited capital and a desire to keep overhead as low as possible, aren't able to compete with pricing bottom dwellers like Walmart. Cash-strapped buyers, no matter their race, are much more likely to buy a $10 DVD from a white-owned retail leviathan than a $20 DVD from DeAndre.

Finally - and I know that we are not alone in this - some people who wish to own their own business simply shouldn't. I can't count on one finger the number of people who've expressed a desire to run a business but have asked themselves whether or not they have the fortitude to do so. Running a business successfully means sacraficing, putting the customer first, succesfully managing employees, having a finance background, being able to create a business model and breathe life into it, putting one's trust into the right people, and acting professionally. Contrary to popular belief, there's very little that is intuitive about running a business. Many black business owners strike out on their own because they desire wealth and autonomy but they don't know the first thing about making a business work. I've seen a store's operations grind to a screeching halt because the cat who is supposed to be handling his business to too busy trying to get a woman's phone number to wait on the customer. Again, this is not endemic to us, but knowing that makes it no less frustrating or forgivable.

Sour Grapes Update: A good friend of mine shared a story with me. He was talking with a white man in San Antonio when the man uttered the following phrase: "You all think you can do anything you want now that you've got a black President." I guess he didn't believe Obama when the Pres-Elect declared that he was "your president too."



At 8:59 PM , Anonymous beauty jackson said...

whenever i speak to people from the era of integration, they all echo your sentiment. so many of "us" were in a hurry to give money to people that didn't want our money in the first damn place.

At 8:20 PM , Anonymous eddwest said...

We should take lessons from Jews. They support each other when it comes to their business as well as each other. Why does it seam like we as a people find it hard to trust and support one another? Support black owned business...unless they half-ass the job and get lasy on you. These ain't the "pre-1864" negros.

At 10:06 AM , Blogger Clifton said...

My dad will preach about integration destroying black business for hours.

Dealing with the current situation, one of the things some small black businesses need to work on is marketing and advertising. A friend of mine opened a sandwich shop right in the heart of the business district. He should have been successful at that but no one knew he was open. People would just walk past his door all day. They have to work on building clientele.


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