Kjerstin Klein feels like she’s jogging in quicksand.
As the co-owner and chief communications officer of Willi’s Ski and Snowboard Shop in Pittsburgh, Klein is grappling with Wall Street’s encroachment on an industry that has long been the domain of Main Street entrepreneurs and a warming climate’s shrinking of the winter business season.
“We’re being hit on a lot of different sides,” Klein said.
“Climate change is real, and our businesses, the mom-and-pop side of things, are the canary in the coal mine. We’re already pretty well strapped.”
Threatened 10% U.S. tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports, she said, could be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Her family-owned business has grown to boast between 200 and 300 employees across five locations, but the economic and weather stressors are taking a growing toll.
“It’s a boxer in the ring,” Klein said. “It’s not the first roundhouse that gets him.”
Klein, like other small outdoor-industry business owners, has spent the summer worrying whether the products Willi’s sells would be swept up in President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war with China, and abrupt starts and stops in negotiations between Washington and Beijing have made planning nearly impossible.
Trump suggested in June that he would impose 25% tariffs on Chinese imports not covered under previous duties, but backed away after a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping .
The relief for businesses proved fleeting. Trump accused China of reneging on its G20 promise to purchase agricultural products from the U.S. and halt the sale of fentanyl, and said he would respond with a “small” tariff of 10% on $300 billion in Chinese goods beginning Sept. 1.
Beijing was quick to retaliate, directing state-owned companies to halt purchases of U.S. crops.
The Chinese yuan fell to its lowest level against the dollar in more than a decade, and the Treasury Department labeled China a currency manipulator.
Trump said that proves “Americans are not paying for the tariffs — they are being paid for compliments of China.”
But as Klein prepares to open the doors of her five stores for the winter season, she and other small business owners can’t help but disagree.
Since Trump made his announcement, she has been working the phones to figure out whether her vendors will absorb the full 10% tariffs or raise the prices they charge Willi’s and other shops.
“The complication comes in the timing and the lack of forethought, the lack of certainty,” she said. “This is the third time we’re back and forth with things, so we have no way to strategize.”
For big retailers, cutting workers or hours can cover the cost of the tariffs, but that’s not a viable option for Klein.
“My entire family works in the business,” she said. “I’m not going to tell Mom she can’t work. What am I going to do for people who have worked for me for 30 to 40 years, say, ‘Thanks, I’m going to cut your hours?’’’
Faced with the prospect of charging higher prices, Klein has considered adding a “tarifff” line on merchandise tags “so people can understand where this is coming from.”
“In western Pennsylvania, if I’m going to charge people 10% more, do they have 10% more of discretionary income?” she said. “This isn’t a tax on China. It’s an attack on the United States.”
Klein’s stores open in just two months, and she has a warehouse of merchandise ready to hit the shelves.
While those items would avoid the 10% tariffs, Klein said she is “scrutinizing records” to determine what hasn’t yet shipped from China and which goods are likely to incur the duties when they arrive.
She’s particularly worried about specialty products from smaller manufacturers that can’t absorb the levies like larger, better-known competitors .
One of those manufacturers, Krimson Klover, a women’s apparel company based in Boulder, warned the Trump administration in June that it has no good options for dealing with the duties.
Raising prices on dealers, COO Gail Ross said, would likely cause them to cancel or reduce orders, and absorbing the tariffs “is not sustainable for us as a small, lean business.”
Moving production out of China would be costly, and other factories don’t have the capacity to make Krimson Klover’s products, she said.
“This is just a very haphazard approach to the situation,” said Chris Steinkamp, director of communications for Snowsports Industries America, a trade group representing the U.S. winter sports industry.
“We don’t disagree that an equitable situation needs to be had with China and this has to be fair, but to put the onus on our retailers and consumers doesn’t seem like it’s going to accomplish what needs to be done.”