Labor shortage creates backlogs

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By Ken Ryan

Business has been so robust for retailers that install crews are forced to play catch up.

Scores of flooring dealers across the U.S. have enjoyed surprisingly robust sales in 2020, thanks in part to a home renovation surge fueled by the coronavirus. In some cases, however, the business boom collided with the ongoing installation shortage to create a work backlog for some retailers.

During the March-early April shutdown that impacted large swaths of the country, few flooring retailers could have imagined that business would have snapped back so quickly. But as millions of Americans put exotic vacations on hold and eschewed restaurants and other entertainment, they redirected their money to home projects—including flooring.

The surge in business was great news on one hand; however, the dearth of installers—a situation exacerbated by COVID- 19—has restrained some of that momentum, at least for now. Ryan Commerce, owner of Lancaster, Pa.-based Indoor City, shared a typical scenario. “In the beginning, when we were shut down, it had a huge impact as we were unable to work. It created a huge backlog for us to complete when we opened up again in May. Working through the backlog was a challenge, but our installers were eager for work after being out of work for almost two months.”

The good news for Indoor City is they have 25 crews and were able to catch up. Today, they are operating at what Commerce calls “a very busy, comfortable normal” as they head into 2021.

Other dealers who spoke to FCNews agreed the initial COVID-19 shutdown wreaked havoc on installation schedules. “We are now booking eight to 10 weeks out on carpet and four to six weeks out on hard surface, whereas traditionally we would be looking at two-to-three-week lead times around this time of year,” said Matt Wien, director of sales at Marshall Carpet One & Rug Gallery, Mayfield Heights, Ohio. “Due to the severe lack in experienced carpet installers, we are finding it difficult to keep pace on soft goods.”

Ryan Rogers, CEO, of Lubbock, Texas-based Yates Flooring Center, said COVID-19 impacted his installation schedule during the spring as well. “Once the initial scare of the virus passed, things went back to normal,” he explained. “Currently, I do not have enough installers to keep pace with the amount of work we need to install.”

To a degree, the backlog depends on what state you are in, and how the pandemic impacted it. Ohio, for example, was one of the more restricted states in the early stages, which is one reason Wien said Marshall Carpet One fell behind.

New York also shared that predicament—a complete shutdown followed by an explosion in pent-up demand. Ben Case, co-owner of The Carpet Collection in Lockport, N.Y., said keeping qualified installers lined up for the increasing demand of in-home work will be “an extreme challenge going forward” if demand keeps up at the same level as the last six months. “To an extent our profits are currently limited by the number of qualified installers we can find to facilitate the jobs we sell,” he added.

Some retailers are booking eight to 10 weeks out on carpet due to the dearth of carpet installers.

In Selinsgrove, Pa., Fike Bros. Carpet One was impacted by state mandates that required exposed individuals to quarantine for 14 days. “We have been trying to maintain our installation schedule through mandatory Saturday installs,” said Denise Fike, co-owner.

Many flooring dealers say the backlog that exists now could be a blessing later on as it provides them with work during the normally slower months of January and February. “Our winter months are almost booked full—we’re not usually booked this far ahead,” said Bill Zeigler, co-owner of Charles F. Zeigler & Sons, Hanover, Pa. “My suspicion is there is pent- up demand from being closed for nearly two months.”

Although not the norm, a few retailers that have been operating as an essential business from the get-go reported virtually no disruption in 2020. Case in point is Floors and More in Benton, Ark., where the main issue was being able to hire additional installation crews to keep pace with the work. “We used multiple different approaches to attract installers,” said Carlton Billingsley, co-owner. “We incentivized our existing installers to recruit new installers from their contacts. We also used social media to attract contractors looking for work. We are always on the lookout for new installers, even if we don’t have a job for them today.”

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Dec. 7/14, 2020

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