Business Columns & Blogs

Affairs closure is snapshot of small-business challenges nationwide

The saddest news of the week (at least in stories not involving some sort of human misbehavior) was the story of the closing of Affairs, the local chocolate and dessert purveyor.

Long before designer chocolate caught on as a craze in Seattle and other trend-defining centers, Affairs was dishing out its oversize truffles and making a dark-chocolate snob out of people like your columnist.

It is likely of little consolation to its owners, employees and customers, but with more than 27 years in business, Affairs had a good run, certainly a lot better than the bulk of small businesses.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tell the grim truth about life expectancy for small business. In 2010, nearly a quarter of the businesses started the year before already were out of the game. Only a third of those started in 2000 were still around. And of those opened in 1994, 17 years before, less than a quarter remained.

In that time, Affairs managed to endure through challenges faced by all small businesses as well as some specific to its location.

Small businesses don’t have the depth of financial resources of big companies; a crummy year doesn’t have to be fatal to a large company, but it can be for a small company. Small businesses don’t have the economies of scale and purchasing power that give larger companies a pricing edge; they don’t have the marketing clout to get the word out.

Affairs made it through multiple economic downturns, some national, some confined to the Northwest and Tacoma. It also had to battle through the tendency of Tacoma to not appreciate its homegrown, unique-to-it businesses and amenities as well as it might. It even managed to get back on its feet and reopen its doors after a fire in 2000.

That Affairs lasted as long and through as much as it did is not a matter of luck or even stubborn perseverance.

Affairs found a niche, did what it did well and built a loyal following.

But even for successful and relatively long-lived small businesses, there comes a point at which economic prospects are not encouraging, there’s no one to sell or turn over the operation to and the owner is ready, after (in the case of Affairs’ owner) nearly three decades to call it a day and do something else.

It’s a sad event, but it also is the nature of business life. Each of us maintains a list of now-departed businesses that were our personal favorites but, for whatever reason, weren’t the favorites of enough other people.

Even less consolation, but no less true, is that in our economic climate, being a big company provides little immunity to looming questions about the future. J.C. Penney is floundering, having chased away many of its loyal longtime customers without attracting new ones to replace them. Best Buy is trying to figure out how to operate a consumer-electronics retailer when everyone from warehouse stores to online merchants sells the same stuff, often for less.

Back on the local scene, small businesses do endure and grow, even in segments populated by much larger companies. McLendon’s, the Renton-based hardware retailer, opened its seventh store by moving into a Tacoma building that had been occupied by two long-gone home-improvement chains (Ernst and Pay ’n Pak). McLendon’s has managed to grow despite competition from some chains that are now gone (Builder’s Square, Home Base) and some that are still around (Lowe’s, which bought the local chain Eagle Hardware & Garden, and Home Depot).

Seattle-based Bartell Drugs recently announced plans for its 59th store, having managed to establish a solid local market share despite the presence of national chains Walgreen and Rite Aid as well as competition from grocers and discount department stores.

Tacoma needs more of those hometown-boy-or-girl-makes-good regional success stories as well as the one-off businesses that thrive by building an enduring legacy. Such businesses not only produce jobs and keep dollars circulating a few more rounds locally, they give the community its own flavor and identity, raising its status from just another exit on the interstate.

Their willingness to take on the challenges specific to small business are worth supporting and saluting in some small, personal way.

A large dark-chocolate truffle would have been just the thing to do it with.