On a beautiful August night in 2014, a high-volume downtown pedestrian area in a popular Southern city was suddenly pitched into darkness. Block after block, street lamps and traffic lights went out; back-up power at restaurants, entertainment venues, hotels, and neighborhood condos failed to kick in; point-of-sale systems stalled, and customers found themselves trapped in elevators and parking garages.
The unexpected outage was stressful, to say the least, for the employees and patrons of the dozens of small businesses that dotted the popular nightlife district. The blackout lasted six hours during prime Friday night sales activity.
An underground power substation had malfunctioned. There was no warning and no way for the area’s small businesses to proactively prevent the sudden outage.
Yet, every one of them could have proactively prepared to prevent a disaster within a disaster.
Power outages, along with flooding, are the most common disasters a small business will face. They can happen anywhere and, like many disasters, their causes are often outside an individual small business’s control.
It’s best to be prepared for this prevalent form of small-business disaster. Whether a city-wide blackout or a more contained power outage, don’t find yourself at a loss--of revenue or about what to do afterward.
Cost, time, and lack of understanding are usually the main reasons why small businesses don’t prepare for disasters, including power outages, but those can be easily overcome. Some preparedness steps don’t have to be time-intensive or overly expensive, especially when considering what’s on the line (financial losses and the survival of your business).
While all businesses, whether restaurants, brick-and-mortar retailers, e-commerce retailers, professional services companies, and more, should tailor a power-outage preparedness strategy for their respective realities, these power outage tips can be adapted for use by most business types.
- Understand what aspects of your business would be most critically affected due to a power disruption. Would it be the ability to process e-commerce orders? Would it be the loss of documents in progress? The loss of the ability to communicate or ring up customer sales?
- Talk to your business insurance provider to see how your coverage protects you in the event of a power outage. Update your preparedness strategy if needed. Have a hard copy of your policy stored in an easily accessible place that doesn’t require power to open.
- Set your computer systems to frequently auto-save and perform server back-ups. If you work in a cloud-based system such as Google Drive, tasks in progress are likely already being auto-saved.
- Invest in uninterrupted power supply (UPS) units at key stations so you can, for example, print customer bills or your current inventory list quickly. UPS units allow you to quickly complete electronic tasks in progress and properly save and shut down. They don’t have a long power life, but they can provide you some much-needed time in an emergency.
- Have surge protection at each computer station. Some UPS units may come with surge protection. Either way, protect your electronics from the risk of damage and destruction.
- Have a commercial generator and know how to use it. Know how long it will last when it’s full. Have a backup supply of fuel ready. Test it every six months to ensure it’s ready to work for you and run it with a “full load” to make sure it meets your power needs.
- Back up key data daily. Export key reports such as sales, customer data, vendor orders, accounts payable/receivable, and employee timesheets to a cloud-based system.
- Keep a listing of important telephone numbers near a landline. Landlines will sometimes work even if mobile phones are down depending if you work through a PBX system. Employees, vendors, key customers, the insurance company, your bank, and the regional Small Business Administration (SBA) office are all useful phone numbers to have access to in an emergency or disruption.
- Keep the mobile phones of key personnel fully or nearly fully charged during each shift. A good habit is to have them charging any time they’re not in use for business purposes. Have an emergency mobile phone charger stored for emergency use.
- If you operate with POS revenue, such as a brick-and-mortar retailer or a restaurant, set up your business on Google Wallet, Paypal, Square, Venmo, or another mobile commerce platform. Use this platform as a backup for customer payment in case of an emergency.
- If you operate a business that has perishables, move refrigerated items to a freezer and keep the door closed to prevent loss.
- If it is safe to operate and you can continue to receive payments, consider a flash sale of limited services or items that could spoil unless sold, for example, salads or mixed drinks with ice.
- Keep accurate records of your sales and your losses during the outage. Even if you initially have to document this data on paper, you can plug it into your typical platforms later. Your insurance provider and any recovery-loan provider will need accurate data.
- Keep an emergency kit large enough to assist more than one person at a time. For example, flashlights or headlamps could help employees as they safely escort customers to the door, or they can be set around your space to illuminate a path to the door. Your kit should also include extra batteries, a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, a battery-powered or hand-cranked AM/FM radio, and safety gear like gloves and masks. Include a small toolbox that could assist if the gas main valve needs to be shut off or if doors or windows are hard to open once the power is out.
If this was helpful, be sure to check out our other resources at the Disaster Help Desk for Business.