Reports from the Field
Friday, April 10, 2020
No one alive has experience conducting business in pandemic conditions. We don’t really know what strategies businesses employed during the last pandemic, when influenza swept over the globe a hundred years ago. Even if we did, the world has changed so much that the best lessons probably would distill down to determination and perseverance.
Hearth & Home reached out to some of the scores of retailers who responded to a recent survey about how they are dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
What we learned is that specialty merchants across North America are facing the coronavirus reality with grit and determination. We learned that certain products and services might become lifelines. We heard from a merchant whose old-school, conservative business practices have positioned him well for hard times. And we learned that creativity is not in short supply.
It’s Raining, but Brighter Days Are Coming
David Waldman, owner of Dreifuss Fireplaces in Philadelphia, could have remained open after Pennsylvania’s governor ordered all non-essential businesses to close in mid-March. As an HVAC and related service business, Dreifuss Fireplaces could have remained open, but Waldman chose not to take that route.
“We didn’t want to have our employees out there,” exposed to coronavirus, said Waldman, who has owned the business for 20 years.
So Waldman sent all nine employees home – seven full-time, two part-time – to ride things out. But unlike many workers sheltering at home, Waldman’s employees are still receiving paychecks.
“Everyone’s getting paid a full salary,” he said. “I want to make sure my guys are taken care of. My installers are getting a well-needed vacation.”
Dreifuss Fireplaces has one new employee, but he’s also getting a paycheck. “His assignment is studying for the NFI exam,” Waldman said, referring to the national certification test for fireplace technicians.
Waldman explained that supporting his staff in this crisis ensures that his business will be positioned to come back strong when these dark days pass.
The tight labor market of the past 18 months convinced Waldman that “finding good help is impossible, and I don’t want to risk losing anybody.”
Waldman thinks the rebound will be strong. “I’m looking to gain when we get out of this,” he said. “We will be looking to hire others.”
Waldman said he can keep issuing paychecks for “probably six months, comfortably.”
Tackling commercial work over the past decade required Waldman to build up a considerable financial cushion. “Cash reserves required for a major project can be significant,” he said. “I ran this as a business, not my personal checking account – always.
“I always wanted a war chest for a rainy day. And it’s raining.”
Pat O’Donnell has a weakened immune system and “bad lungs,” so he hasn’t set foot in Hearth & Home USA in about four weeks. His father started the business in Mount Prospect, Illinois, in 1971, and he went to work there soon after.
“My son and sister are basically running the store,” he said, “taking phone calls and answering emails.” The store is closed to the public because of the pandemic.
Calls tend to be from people who visited the fireplace and outdoor shop before the coronavirus clampdown, O’Donnell said. They need some refresher information or perhaps have made a decision on a purchase.
Some calls are from people who want to shop or window-shop. The store’s website carries this notice:
“During This Closure We Would Love to Walk You Through Our Store Virtually Via FaceTime - Please Call or Email to Schedule an Appointment.”
O’Donnell’s not sure how well FaceTime shopping is converting to sales; the store’s computer system has been down for a while. But virtual shopping is better than no shopping.
“If it wasn’t there,” he said, “we’d be in a heckuva mess.”
Hanging Tough in Wyoming
It’s pretty much been business as usual at Porter’s Mountain View Supply, with stores in Riverton and Casper, Wyoming. The ground is still frozen, snow is possible, and people are still coming by for bags of pellets to get them through these last chilly days. Some might need chemicals for their hot tubs, says owner Leo Kosirog.
“It’s the tail end of the heating season,” he said. “Spas have actually been doing pretty good for us.”
Wyoming is so rural and so spread out and with “a conservative side” that no official shelter-in-place order was issued.
“We don’t need government telling us what to do,” Kosirog said, voicing a mantra often associated with the least populous state in the union. “But at the same time,” he said, “the recommendation is pretty much shelter-in-place.”
Kosirog said Porter’s cut back weekend hours in response to somewhat lower store traffic, but he has no plans to trim staff. “We’re kind of a family unit,” he said. “We won’t be laying anybody off.”
An Overnight Online Presence
Rural Oswego in upstate New York is nearly 300 miles from the pandemic hotspots of Brooklyn and Queens. But the effects of the governor’s blanket order to pause commercial activity and shelter-in-place are the same.
Business is largely on pause at Johnson’s Pools & Spas, stuck between “the tail end of the hearth season” and “the beginning of the pool and hot tub season,” says Audra Johnson Marks, who owns the business with her brother, Eric Johnson.
To counter the pause in retail traffic, the owners “quickly put together an online catalog” to serve customers and generate sales of pellets and pool and spa chemicals.
Marks hopes that people in her market will opt to support a local business offering curbside pickup or delivery rather than shop on Amazon.
She said one outcome of this lengthy period of sheltering in place ultimately will be good for outdoor lifestyle businesses.
“People are going to come away from this thinking, ‘Wow! I didn’t get my vacation,’” she said. When there is a bit of extra money, perhaps they will be ready to invest it in their backyards.
To be continued.