By Ken Ryan
With the gravity of the coronavirus (COVID-19) gripping the nation, the government mandating social distancing and schools and businesses closed or on hiatus across the country, flooring dealers have been forced to react quickly to this fluid situation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended no events with more than 50 people for two months. Then, on March 16, Federal officials recommended people avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more people (through at least March 31) in a move to try and blunt the impact of the virus. In addition, guidelines called for schooling to be done at home and discretionary travel and social visits should be avoided.
In the meantime, the flooring industry is scrambling to keep pace with this new reality.CCA Global, the industry’s largest buying group which oversees Carpet One Floor & Home and Flooring America, among other entities, held an all-member CCA conference call on March 18 to outline its support. “We’re doing a lot for our members and circumstances are changing rapidly,” Keith Spano, president of Flooring America/Flooring Canada/Floor Trader, told FCNews. “We’re handling an influx of member calls and needs.”
Olga Robertson, president of the FCA Network, said she has discussed business conditions with every dealer in her group over the last two days. She is finding that much depends on where you are located. “Some pockets of the country are doing just fine and there’s a steady flow of customers and calls,” she said. “Some customers, however, are taking a wait-and-see approach and postponing measures, but I’m not sure if that’s COVID-19 related or a stock market issue or both. Everyone is prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.”
Robertson finds many retailers in middle America—where most of her members reside—are fiscally conservative, with no debt and operate within their means. Some of her larger retailers are looking at this slowdown as a buying opportunity. “Back orders on goods out of China are already being felt with promise dates in June,” she explained. “I have a member in the Kansas City market who is closing his store until the end of March. He does custom builder work and has informed his builders that selections will be made in April; the builders actually appreciated his position. At this juncture, none of my other members are considering shutting down but that may change [soon] as there are so many unknowns.”
Just as the expanding coronavirus has disproportionately impacted the U.S., [as of the morning of March 18, there were more than 1,700 confirmed cases in New York vs. five in North Dakota], the same is true for dealers. In Bismarck, N.D., co-owner Jon Dauenhauer of Carpetworld Bismarck, said, “So far it has been business as usual, but I anticipate that to change in the coming weeks.”
Carpetworld is the exception among flooring dealers, as the vast majority are facing major slowdowns in traffic and cancelled or delayed orders on projects.
“This stinks,” said Lauren Voit, owner of Great Western Flooring in Naperville, Ill., echoing the sentiment shared by many of her brethren.
Eric Langan, owner of Carpetland USA (The Langan Group), with nine locations in Iowa and Illinois, believes the situation will have a negative impact on its won business and on the industry alike. “The length and depth of the impact is what is so concerning,” he said. “No one knows how long these restrictions and bans are going to last or when we can return to some sort of normalcy. Until that happens, things will remain difficult and unpredictable. We’re going to focus on what we can control within our four walls.”
Langan added that with traffic anticipated to be down, he’s encouraging his sales staff to reach out to customers via phone, text, email and social media to inquire about new business, referrals and solicit online reviews.
In Pennsylvania, non-essential businesses have closed, a development that has created a challenging environment for retailers like Mike Foulk of Foulk’s Flooring America, Meadville. “Some places want work done while they are shut down and others such as the medical profession cannot run the risk of having extra people on site,” he explained. “Retail customer traffic has come to a screeching halt. However, Main Street and bid commercial remains strong in most instances.”
While attempting to run a business, retailers are also trying to ensure the utmost safety for employees and customers. At Carpet Country and Barrington Carpet & Flooring Design, Twinsburg, Ohio, owner Craig Phillipssaid his intention is to stay open for business until otherwise instructed by officials. “We have ample supply of cleaning products that we are asking our employees to use at their workstations several times a day,” he said. “I have asked our staff to abide by the 6-foot rule when working with other staff or customers, including a no-handshake recommendation. Most importantly I have asked our folks that if they show the symptoms of the coronavirus that they stay home and get well.”
Phillips said he is continuing to monitor local, state and federal communication for any new guidelines. In the meantime, he’s dealing with situations as they arise. “We have had two customers postpone their installation,” he said. “This is truly our only impact we have experienced thus far.”
Elisabeth Stubbs, Enhance Floors & More, Marietta, Ga., joked that her showroom is cleaner than it has ever been from all the constant sanitizing. On a more serious note, she said, “The phones are dead, and traffic has dropped off tremendously. I have laid one person off.”
Stubbs cited the first postponement of a scheduled installation due to the fear of the coronavirus, and several big projects the company recently bid on have been put on hold. “I am concerned about how we will all fare over the coming weeks,” she said.
That level of uncertainty is pervasive throughout the industry. Questions like “How much longer will this last?” and “When will it peak?” are being asked. One flooring dealer told FCNews, “Cash flow is going to be a very real issue for dealers, and I’m concerned many are going to get wiped out.”
In the meantime, flooring dealers—like the rest of us—are monitoring developments to determine next moves and contingencies. “This has been a very trying event to lead through,” Great Western’s Voit said. “We just aren’t sure what we can sustain as a company until protecting everyone in the short term turns into financial losses that hurt the company and hurt everyone in the long term. We know people depend on their income and we want to provide that.”
Cathy Buchanan, owner of Independent Carpet One Floor & Home, Westland, Mich., sent a letter to her customers outlining steps her store had taken to provide a safe environment. “We want you to feel comfortable coming into our store for all your flooring needs,” she wrote. Buchanan also offered a slew of incentives for those customers who may choose to stay home. “It may be time to invest in your home rather than travel.”
In hard-hit Washington state, Ilaria Hare Heiderich of Seattle-based Floorworks Inc./Flooring America said the level of anxiety everyone is feeling in her area was palpable. “Universities and schools have been closed, so we’ve had a few clients want to postpone their installs because they don’t want the added chaos in their homes,” she explained. “Traffic has been sporadic—one day was busy but the next day is dead, so you just never know.”
The flooring industry has dealt with crises before—recessions (big and small), natural disasters, terrorist attacks. And now COVD-19. “All I can say is stay positive, keep smiling and keep 6 feet between you and the other guy,” FCA’s Robertson said. “As they say, ‘This, too, shall pass.”’