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Reports from the Field

Tuesday, March 31, 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.


Fill ’er Up!

The roadside propane tank at Barbecue & Fireplace Centre in St. Catharines, Ontario, has taken on new significance in recent days. Before the pandemic, it was merely a visual aid, a reminder that the shop could refill your grill’s 20 lb. tank.

Now propane means something entirely different for owner Kerry Emberson.

“I pump quite a bit of propane, so I’m good,” he says. “That’s my lifeline right now.”

Propane from Emberson’s bulk tank refills cylinders for homeowners and refills tanks for propone-powered vehicles. “I have commercial accounts,” he says. “I can run my business just off of that.”

Emberson predicts he can “ride this out to the end of summer. I’m not gonna make money, but I’m not gonna lose any either.”

Emberson has no debt. “I owe nothing,” he says. He owns his entire inventory. For years he’s taken the 2% discount offered for prompt payment of manufacturer invoices. That 2% is money in the bank, he says.

“I put money away for a rainy day,” he says. “I live by that mantra, and it’s certainly served me well now.”


Invaluable Pools

With millions sheltering at home, the Outdoor Room has never enjoyed more significance. Ditto for swimming pools.

“We believe your pool’s going to be real important to you this year,” says Mark Sweeney of Hearth & Pool Services in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. People confined to their homes will need chemicals and other supplies to keep their pools safe and clean, he says.

Sweeney says he can test water samples brought by customers, and deliver supplies to them at curbside with no contact. Credit card transactions are handled by phone.

“I think we have a real viable reason for being here,” Sweeney says. “We’re going to keep going for as long as we can.”


Building Cash Flow

Construction services may not be as glamorous as selling high-end goods in an air-conditioned showroom, but they may be the key to sustaining cash flow for some retailers.

Embers Custom Fireplace & Gas Products, with three locations in Ohio, has stayed busy lately wrapping up wrapping up fireplace remodeling projects sold in January and February. A typical fireplace remodel job runs from $10,000 to $15,000, says owner Ben Holt. Customers pay 50% down to get things started.

“Now,” he says, “that second half is coming around and is helping our cash flow. Normally, we’re slow this time of year.”

Ohio classifies Holt’s business as a propane dealer and supplier of HVAC-related goods and services, as essential. He says that, recently, he’s sold and installed a few in-ground, natural gas lines for barbecue grills.

“People aren’t going out to eat,” he says. “They’re grilling out more at home.”

At Pacific Hearth & Home in Rancho Cordova, California, work continues on new construction projects, says owner Matt Irvine. The company has a general contractor license and specializes in fireplace replacements. Remodel jobs on occupied homes have halted, “so literally half my business is shut down,” he says.

Construction services are vital to Louisiana Fireplace in Pineville, Louisiana, says owner Kristetta Miller. With the showroom closed to comply with government orders, she forwarded business calls to her cell phone. She’s getting about one service call a day. Meanwhile, her husband and daughter were building a brick wall for a customer. “That has been good to keep the business going,” she says.


Time for Cyber-sales

Outdoor Rooms by Design closed its showroom in Kimberling City, Missouri, “out of responsibility to the community,” says Sharon Renyer. She and husband Randy have operated the business for 16 years.

Remarkably, business was up 16% or so in March. Renyer attributes that to hiring a crackerjack salesperson who made a difference before the showroom was closed to walk-in trade. Businesses are under no restrictions, she says, but her store is open only by appointment.

Online sales are another matter. Renyer’s daughter handles social media and digital marketing for the store, which is launching a new way to sell furniture, fire pits, grills and just about anything else on the showroom floor.

Renyer calls it a cyber-sale.

Here’s how it works. Grills are first. On Facebook, the store will promote a single item on the showroom floor at a special price, with a link to its online store. Renyer plans to select “our favorite grill from each brand and say, ‘We’re only selling one at this price.’”

When that item sells, it’s on to the next.

“Then we’re going to do fire pits. Then we’re going to do furniture, and we’re just going to keep selling,” she says. “We may wipe out our showroom floor, but that’s not the worst problem, right?”

Renyer says it took years for her business to recover from the Great Recession. Perseverance saw her through that, and she’s confident that it will again.

“All you can do is hang on,” she says. “You make the best of it. You scramble until you find another solution, and another solution, and another solution.”

To be continued.

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