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COVID-19 impacts & reshapes retail

(Floor Covering Weekly ) By Amy Rush-Imber

[New York] Over the last few months, the U.S. has experienced unprecedented disruption while diagnosed cases of COVID-19 reach across the country impacting, among other things, the retail sector.

With some doors closing, others reducing hours and staff and still others remaining open to light traffic and existing construction jobs, floor covering retailers are feeling the pain of a, if temporary, changed world.

But likely, the consumer will be different and it is something businesses need to prepare for. As well, now is the ideal time to get the shop in order and retool things that were on the backburner. Here, FCW takes a look at where floor covering retail stands today along with steps being taken to get ready for the return of business.

State of Retail
Indeed, retailers today are operating under very different circumstances than they were at the beginning of the year. “I don’t know of any [retailers] operating normally. If they are, it is a very limited number,” offered Scott Humphrey, CEO of the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA). “Those with a strong commercial side to their business are definitely doing better than those who are residentially weighted. In fact, many are picking up Main Street business during this time of forced closure. It is the perfect time for renovation.”

Larry Flick, CEO, The Floor Store, told FCW that all nine of his stores remain open but with a skeleton staff. “Although,” he added, “Our showrooms are technically closed due to the guidelines laid out by the Public Health Department, so we are open by appointment only, with reduced hours. We are open seven days a week 9:00am to 5:00 p.m., we normally close at 7:00 p.m. We continue to advertise heavily on TV and radio with better than expected results. I’ve cut my advertising budget in half, but due to availability, the free spots more than make up for my reduction in budget.”

In addition, Flick said prior to the pandemic, the company had 115 employees, excluding installers. The retailer, he noted, “laid off 56 employees two weeks after we were ordered to close our showrooms, which was on March 17th. We have since rehired 15 employees and hope to bring the rest back in the next 30 days,” Flick said, adding that the retailer did qualify and were funded for the SBA’s PPP loan. “Our staff is our lifeblood and our competitive advantage so it’s been a balancing act trying to decide how quickly to bring them back.”

Atlanta Flooring Design Centers has remained open for builder, designers and customers who make appointments. “We made a point of following all CDC guidelines and offer sanitizer throughout our buildings,” explained Nik Burdett. “Our builder installations remained steady as did commercial. We saw some jobs scheduled for summer pushed up. Interest in retail and cash and carry has picked up in the last week.”

Susan Hadinger, president of Hadinger Flooring in Naples, said her store is currently open with reduced hours and reduced staff — Monday-Friday 10-4 and Saturday 11-3. “We are getting traffic in the store and help an average of 20-25 customers a day,” she offered.

“I believe the entire region is seeing how people can be more productive without two-plus hour commutes, and some of the regional planners are suggesting there could be a permanent 25 percent reduction in traffic with the new norm being more at-home workers.” – Nik Burdett, Atlanta Flooring Design Centers

Changed World
Addressing a new set of consumer expectations will be key to returning to profitability.

“It will take some time before consumer confidence returns. It will be imperative that retailers that survive this pandemic put themselves in the shoes of their customers and ask what would make me comfortable going into a retail establishment now. I mentioned cleanliness. I would add to that providing gloves and mask,” said WFCA’s Humphrey. “It will be important to think outside of our normal means of operation. What was normal before is no longer. Is the answer using technology to meet the consumer’s need? Will the consumer be more comfortable with you coming to them than them coming to you?”

The Floor Store’s Flick said that changes will be obvious things such as “wearing face masks, gloves, booties and having hand sanitizer throughout the stores and cleaning samples and all surfaces throughout the day,” adding that, “Social distancing will be an issue in my busier stores, which have as many as 10 salespeople working on a sale day or Saturday. I’m still trying to figure that one out.”

But as retailers retool for the moment, it is also an ideal time to look ahead and begin taking steps for a full reopen of business. Offered Humphrey, “We have great thinking time right now. We should be using it to prepare for the world to come.”

And that hat is exactly what some retailers are doing. Noted Hadinger, “We have continued digital advertising through this and have started advertising on TV with a 15 second spot. We are also taking this time to update our showroom floors and displays so that we will be fresh and ready when business returns.”

“We do feel that our industry will be well positioned to take advantage of pent up demand once the restrictions lift and we are focused on making sure we are ready and able to participate in that once business returns.” – Susan Hadinger, Hadinger Flooring

Prep Work
Creating new efficiencies and retooling a bit are indeed laying the foundation for the future.

For Atlanta Flooring Design Centers, that means remodeling retail spaces to open up and declutter. “We are continuing to stress to all employees the need to follow social distance procedures and be sure to use sanitizer placed throughout,” said Burdett. “We are focusing on retail products from a simplicity of installation standpoint. We are going to offer tools, training and technology to help the DIY market including a ‘Call the expert’ idea we are looking at for our Chattanooga location. Our sales teams have taken to social media with training videos.”

Sam Roberts, owner of Roberts’ Carpet & Fine Floors, said that the company is totally rebuilding its web site which should be fully active sometime in May. “We are running sales with some of our best vendors. Our installation is relatively soft, so I am trying to identify showroom areas that need freshening, and then replacing some show room display floors with more current products. That should be great for the showrooms and have the added benefit of keeping my installers busy,” he said.

Some changes made during this pandemic such as restructuring staffing or workplace efficiencies that have helped stores power through, said retailers, are likely to remain in place even when things normalize.

“We are tightening up processes and making changes needed to run more smoothly and efficiently. We are also focusing our social media and advertising on ‘shop local’ and ‘family owned’ as we feel that really resonates with people in our community right now. We have also, as I’m sure has everyone, heavily increased our cleaning/disinfecting and will likely continue that into the future,” said Hadinger.

Added Burdett, “We did allow, for the first time, work-at-home. With schools closing, we were seeing a hardship with parents. Many [customer sales representative] functions were allowed to work out of their house. The results have been very positive and I think there is a realization that younger workers can and will work from home and efficiencies can even increase as well as in many cases an improvement in the quality of life. In talking with our HR recruiter, our lack of work at home has been a detriment in new hires. It has also greatly relieved the space and parking issues we faced at our main building.”

But, he said, “Ultimately, this has been a time to reflect on how to do more with less and focus on income producing, that will be something we will carry forward.”

For Roberts, many of the future-forward strategies the company is spending time on were in place before the pandemic. “I haven’t developed a marketing strategy for emerging from this mess. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll come up with a strategy that we will implement as we make decisions,” he said, adding, though, “I don’t think the short term things that we are and will do in these extraordinary times will much carry over when all of this is over. We were already making the effort to transition to digital as opposed to conventional advertising vehicles. We will move more and more of our marketing dollars to digital as we find efficient and gainful methods of utilizing the funds.”

Source: https://www.floorcoveringweekly.com/main/features/covid19-impacts-reshapes-retail-29651