FCNews exclusive: Big boxes considered ‘essential’ while specialty dealers close

Home COVID-19 FCNews exclusive: Big boxes considered ‘essential’ while specialty dealers close

By Ken Ryan

As the vast majority of specialty flooring dealers close their showrooms to the public—whether by state government mandate or their own choosing—most home centers and big boxes remain open as “essential” businesses, selling everything under their expansive roofs—including flooring.

This uneven playing field rankles some flooring retailers who balk at the unfair advantage afforded the Home Depots and Lowe’s of the world. In Michigan, for example, Big-box home improvement stores including Home Depot, Lowe’s and Menards remain open, but small-business competitors in painting, flooring, carpeting were shuttered. That’s much to the chagrin of floor covering dealers like Tammy Whitley, owner of Grayling World of Floors, a flooring retailer and installer in the northern Lower Peninsula. She was forced to lay off five employees and cancel jobs for six subcontractors. “Why is it that Home Depot and Lowe’s are open and selling flooring and paint?” she asked.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order closing nonessential businesses was left open to broad interpretation as companies were left to sort out what type of work could go on. “The construction of the order is upside down to what everybody was anticipating,” said Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. “This order doesn’t authorize the business—it authorizes the employee of a business to work. There’s a disconnect about how to operationalize that, and it’s very confusing.”

Marjorie Benson, president of Friendly Floors in Port Charlotte, Fla., said she has noticed numerous complaints such as Whitley’s on various floor covering Facebook groups about this discrepancy. She said the only thing you can do is move on. “The bottom line is the big boxes will always have an unfair advantage—life is unfair,” she told FCNews. “I believe in the midst of this we have much bigger fish to fry than worrying about what Home Depot or Lowe’s are doing. It’s up to us small business owners to do the work to keep our businesses solvent in these times. Focus on your clients, your employees, your numbers. Forget the big box stores.”

Others, including Rob Elder, co-owner of Hiller’s Flooring America, Rochester, Minn., are in agreement. “We closed because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We can’t worry what someone else is doing; if you believe in your principles, it’s just right [to be closed].”

Big box stores are allowed to stay open to sell essential goods as well as non-essential products, including flooring.

Big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s are allowed to stay open ostensibly because they carry some essential items and, therefore, can service a customer whose pipe may have burst, for example. But while they are open they can also sell “non-essential” products, including flooring.

This issue potentially crosses over into other end-use markets that install flooring, including builders. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently designated construction of single-family and multi-family housing an essential infrastructure business—a move that was welcomed by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The designation, the group said, will enable many home building firms to keep their businesses open during the COVID-19 pandemic and help to stabilize the housing industry and its supply chain in the near term.

Workaround for flooring dealers

Depending on the state, some flooring dealers qualify as “home improvement” businesses and therefore—technically—can remain open. Such is the case for Capitol Carpet & Tile, with five locations throughout Florida. Lou Morano, president, told FCNews his companies qualifies for such a designation. Small consolation, though, as he has had to lay off 40% of his workforce due to the lack of foot traffic.

Some dealers have closed anyway out of an abundance of caution to keep employees and customers safe. Nebraska Furniture Mart, which is deemed an essential business, decided to close its showrooms for the health and safety of its employees and the community. “Our operations side of the business, including our home office teams, warehouse and call centers, are still open though,” said David Chambers, director of flooring.

Although they are deemed essential business, Nebraska Furniture Mart has closed its showrooms at all locations. At the same time, RC Willey has shuttered its stores in California.

Ditto for Salt lake City-based RC Willey Home Furnishings, with 14 locations in four Western states. Effective March 26, the Utah, Idaho and Nevada stores are open by appointment with minimal staff. The California stores are still currently closed until further notice. Many other specialty flooring dealers also shut their showrooms prior to any stay at home directives.

However, there are flooring dealers who have remained open for business. One flooring dealer in the Midwest, who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “We are laying off a number of people this week.” His four stores are technically still open as his state has not yet done a complete shutdown and thus far home improvement businesses like his are still OK to operate. “Our installation crews also can work because they fall under the ‘construction’ category. Some of our local competitors have closed their doors; some have not.  We are trying to keep a low profile to avoid the backlash that some open businesses are getting on social media. Retail traffic has ground to a halt, and we anticipate some sort of shelter in place order at any time.”

In Ohio, Barrington Carpet and Carpet Country Twinsburg continues to operate with a partial at-home workforce in its three locations, which as of April 1 continue to remain open for business under a state exemption. “We have 14 of our 31 employees working remotely,” Craig Phillips, president, told FCNews. “That transition has gone very well. We are functioning nearly the same with our work-at-home force. Our multi-family business is slowing, of course. With the stay at home order from our governor, our walk-in traffic is slowing down but not totally shut off. Our commercial and new construction businesses are yet to be affected.”

Illinois has a shelter in place provision in effect; however, for now trades and construction are allowed to operate. That means Carpetland USA, with multiple Illinois locations, continues to do business. “Thankfully we have enough of that to keep several people still working,” said Kevin Rose, president.

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