Despite all the official signs that the economic picture is brightening, most small businesses remain reluctant to start hiring, according to the National Federation of Independent Business. Businesses have their own personal economic indicators that they're keeping close tabs on, and these seem to suggest that things are just not good enough yet to start taking on more staff.
"I'm just not going there. I just won't do it," says Kate Harris, owner of Crossroads Trade, an ethnic arts store in Brookline, Mass. Three years ago, Harris had six people working at her store on the weekends before Christmas. This year, she's got just one. And she says business is still far too volatile to think about hiring more employees.
"From day to day, it's absolutely unpredictable," says Harris. "Even if business were down, and I could see patterns to it — then I would be happy to act. But there is no pattern."
A Moody Market
Tess Enright, owner of Tess and Carlos, a high-end clothing boutique in Newton, Mass., agrees that the retail environment is crazy right now.
"It's just like everything is very bipolar — and it's all about moods," Enright says.
Three years ago, Enright had 17 employees at three stores. Now, she's down to just six for her two remaining stores. She says big spenders are still spending, but she can't start growing her business again until middle-income shoppers come back.
"That customer is definitely not there at all still," says Enright. "People are not shopping the way it used to be, because people are going to be careful and cautious."
Enright says she, too, has learned to make do with less, and will probably never go back to her old staffing levels. "We all had too much," she says.
Enright supports President Obama's idea for tax breaks for businesses that hire workers. But many others scoff at the idea.
"If I have to hire, I'm not going to wait for Mr. Obama to give me $3,000," says Wioletta Zywina, the owner of Da Vinci, an Italian restaurant in Boston. "I would do it because it's good for my business."
Zywina cut her staff by about 10 percent in the past year, and she does need more help. But she says it would be ridiculous to hire, even with a tax credit, because after two months, she wouldn't be able to keep them on staff.
"The $3,000 won't last very long," she says. "It makes absolutely no sense."
Even though business is up, Zywina says it's not enough to make her comfortable hiring.
For her, the sign will be when she can raise entree prices a few bucks without immediately losing customers.
Monitoring Wine Intake
At Murray's Liquors, another store in Newton, manager Rich Cataldo says there's only one economic indicator that will make him believe in the recovery enough to consider expanding. He's secretly keeping tabs on three customers who work in the world of finance and used to be big spenders. About a year ago, they switched to buying only the two-for-$10 or two-for-$12 wine specials.
"We're waiting to see if they come back to buying the $10 to $20 wines they used to buy," says Cataldo. "At that point, if we see that, we know that things are getting better."
Last week, one of Cataldo's unnamed "canaries in the coal mine" bought a $14 bottle of wine. But it was just one customer and just one bottle of wine.
So far, he says, the canaries are still too quiet for comfort.