Lessons from the Pandemic: Eight Industry Perspectives

By Michael J. Knell

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the lead story on every television newscast and on the front page of every major newspaper in this country for the past year. At press time, almost 900,000 Canadian had contracted the disease, just over 22,000 had succumbed and the roll-out of the vaccines was in its early stages.

During the year since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, the containment measures imposed by federal and provincial health authorities caused the majority of furniture, mattress and appliance (FMA) stores to be closed to in-store traffic for as long as 16 weeks. Making matters worse, in many larger markets, these merchants were forced to close over Boxing Week, the most critical seven-day period on the annual retail calendar. The total number of weeks enforced closure varied depending on where each brick-and-mortar store was located.

There is no question this has been a life altering event. Everyone has been affected. It has changed perceptions, minds and attitudes. The way we work and interact with others has been radically changed. In many ways, the pandemic has been the accelerant of change – speeding the arrival of long anticipated change. The best example being a quicker and broader acceptance and adoption of e-commerce by most FMA retailers.

Recently, Home Goods Online reached out to a number of leading independent FMA retailers from across the country and asked them two questions:

What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?

I want to thank each of these energetic and thoughtful industry leaders for taking the time to consider the questions and respond fully. Aside from some minor editing to ensure clarity, their answers are presented as submitted.

Eric Bennett, President/Owner, Bennett’s Furniture & Mattresses
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?

We need to increase investments in having vaccines ready for the next pandemic. I read it is now possible to pre-prepare for almost any pandemic with ready-to-go vaccines. Just more money for research and it will happen. Friction must end between competing interests including the advice of scientists and the business community. The federal government should form a committee to prepare for the next pandemic as soon as this one is over. Explain to the press and public that while “science is super important but ultimately politicians have to make the final decisions.”

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
The biggest change has been the move towards more digital and having your store featured online has become more urgent. Time will tell how much this pandemic changes our society. If a lot more people work from home, that will be good for smaller cities in Canada as people will leave the large urban cities. The other thing is the pandemic certainly proves home furnishings industry is in competition with non-furniture businesses – look at how busy we are when people cannot spend on travel and restaurants.

Lori Fecho, Vice-President, Mattress Mattress
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?
As a businessperson, and a human being, I’ve learned that who we surround ourselves with will determine our threshold for crisis. Those who are okay with stepping outside of their comfort zone and adapting to change are going to pull through the strangest of times. I’ve always felt sales is not for the faint of heart and this strange year has proven that more times than not. I’m so proud of the associates who work for Mattress Mattress and how they have remained focused and motivated during such a stressful and unique time. Every single thing that has been introduced or changed was embraced and taken in stride. I’m grateful for this type of teamwork.

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
This is interesting. We’ve made some changes during COVID to better handle the restrictions that will probably stick with us. We’ve learned that scheduling two or three associates together for less hours provides a better retail experience than staggering their shifts and remaining open longer hours. We learned taking a stand and stepping up to various guidelines provides greater customer certainty when they need it most. We learned we sell products people still want to test before buying online, so we’re less distracted by the online mattress sellers these days. Yes, it’s a thing and we offer online sales too but there is still a need for brick-and-mortar, so we need to continue providing a value-added experience in store.

Jim Fee, President, Stoney Creek Furniture
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?
Cashflow, cashflow, cashflow …. the original lockdown came after a soft back end to 2019 and after shipping the bulk of our backlog through November and December. With January and February typically being soft for both written and shipped sales, cash on hand and backlog of sold goods were stretched thin. During lockdown money mostly went out, with little coming in. It was a challenging situation for any business. While you can’t control the timing of a pandemic and closure, the situation certainly sharpened the focus on preserving cash.

I learned the value of having associations, buying groups and friends to network with. When you are in the middle of it, trying to educate yourself on how to operate your business and how to protect your employees, it was amazing the amount of information that was provided by the North American Home Furnishings Association (HFA), Mega Group, AVB BrandSource, the Retail Council of Canada, and the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and others. It was plentiful and invaluable. Getting on phone calls, zoom meetings and webinars became a daily routine. Talking to fellow retailers throughout those months was also a great help – we were sharing insights and understanding of rules. The way Mega stood up to assist their membership was commendable and extremely helpful. All of the things I’ve listed showed the support available and that we were not alone.

Something I always knew, but was reinforced by this pandemic, is just what a great team I have here with me. They were there to assist and support me as we all worked our way through this. That core group did whatever was needed to keep our business going, even in a limited fashion, and to keep communicating with our customers. I’m very thankful to them.

Personally, this situation tested me. It was very stressful. All the what-if’s and worst-case scenarios ran through my mind. Sleep was limited. What I found surprising though, was after I had done all I could do, still staying engaged and learning, I came to the realization that, at least for a while, it was beyond my control. And from that I found an inner calm and started sleeping well. Strange, considering the challenges at that time.

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
As for Stoney Creek Furniture, our web site, chat service and digital advertising became of much greater importance. That will continue. Inventory, that was in stock, also became the most important thing to promote. With the supply chain still in disarray, having available inventory will be key for some time. We brought in items that hadn’t been part of our regular line-up before, even new vendors, based on what inventory was available. Consumers are very much focused on their homes right now and we all have to do our best to fill those needs. Hopefully, that renewed appreciation for the home will continue for some time.

Randall McKay, Owner, Daley’s BrandSource Home Furnishings
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?
The one thing that stands out to me is we needed an interruption in our lives so we could refocus on the important things in life – family and our fellow human beings.

This year in Fredericton there has been a lot more focus on helping the homeless. I found people have been more aware of the plight they face every day. One day, I stopped to give coffee to a lady my wife and I have been made aware of. As I prepared the coffee cup and bag with the cream and sugar (just a few seconds at most) there were two other people bringing her warm clothing, money and food.

Before the pandemic, we all were so busy we didn’t take the time for self and others. In that way, it was good to cause us to change.

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
On the business side we are open fewer hours and doing more business. I have learned to be bolder as I go after my goals. People want to support local, as we have done in our purchasing for many years. The support and patience shown to us as we all struggle to find enough inventory to fill orders, has been amazing. We live in a great city.

Scott Reid, President/Owner, Reid’s Furniture
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?
I have learned just how fragile things can be. One minute you are cruising at 30,000 feet feeling you can do no wrong, and the next you’re sitting alone behind a locked door watching customers line-up and being told you cannot let them in. Very frustrating!

I have learned the world is not fair! The big boxes can be open, the internet keeps shipping, and we are closed. Also, very frustrating!

I am, however, thankful I ended up in the furniture business. I listen to friends with hair salons and restaurants talking about this being potentially career ending as I sit here ‘inconvenienced’ while I enjoy one of the most profitable years I can remember. I keep telling myself there is a light at the end of the crazy tunnel. We just happen to be at a bend and can’t see it.

On a personal level, I have learned to really appreciate the quieter pace to life. With two young boys at home, we are not running from rink to rink, we are not eating on the go to get to our next appointment, we are simply doing what we are told, which is to ‘stay home’. With that, we are enjoying movie nights, games nights, long dog walks, and early bedtimes. All things considered I don’t hate being home. In fact, we are renovating, cleaning and redecorating – just like our customers that are at home doing the same thing.

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
I have spent my entire working life ‘controlling my inventory’ – always giving preference to suppliers that can ship quickly. During this pandemic, quick ship is anything but. Like most of my retail friends we have been loading up. The pipe is full, the product is coming.

The warehouse is ready to burst with incoming freight. The lock down is hampering our ability to get things out, so we are managing the cash and looking for any ‘spare’ space to store things. With price increases coming every day and lead times getting longer, the math tells me I need to order more, but the death stares from my warehouse manager tell me I shouldn’t.

What is the lesser of two evils? Am I better off being closed with too much inventory or open with nothing to sell? I don’t know the right answer but can’t help think if retailers would just quit hoarding inventory, the factories wouldn’t be buried and things would operate like normal.

I have spent my entire working life growing. I measured growth by our sales and did things like expand hours, increase advertising, hire more people and open more stores. The pandemic forced me to cut advertising significantly, streamline the staff, reduce hours and focus on different things. Interestingly, profit went way up. If you treat every customer like she is your last, we have found more of them buy. When they buy, they are buying more stuff and more expensive stuff. We no longer have the dreaded night shift where we don’t see an ‘up’ – so now we are at home with our families enjoying a much better quality of life. The question I am asking myself is, “What do I have to do to make this the new normal?”

I only wish I knew what the future holds. If you talk to some, the world is coming to an end. If you talk to others, they are telling you we will continue to ‘drink from a fire hose’ and now is the time to expand. My gut tells me we should enjoy the ride, invest in inventory, hold onto cash and wait to see what the future brings. I fear we have only begun the ‘open and close’ yo-yo pattern of business.

What I do know is this pandemic has been hard on everyone for different reasons. Be kind, phone a friend, be a good person and help out where you can.

Jim Rice, Owner, Ameublement BrandSource Rice
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?
Our little once-unaffected-COVID-free area exploded recently. It was quite impactful. We were living in our little haven, hidden from any danger then suddenly kaboom! Lockdown!

The writing was on the wall but regardless having to close once again was not something we were looking forward to. The last 12 months have been quite the eye opener. We went through a rollercoaster of emotions and reactions to the constantly evolving situation around us.

Initially (back last March), we had no idea what was ahead of us. We went from thinking ‘that’s it, finito’ to ‘holy crap’, we can’t get product! Everybody’s buying everything!

We had to adapt continuously, spending most of our time sourcing product and managing customer expectations. Forecasting is close to impossible, since you can’t really rely on sources to supply the goods.

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
Nonetheless, there have been more ups than downs to this whole thing. Our company had the best year ever with the best margins ever. We managed to transition our delivery service to a local contractor. We had sufficient cash flow to move forward with several renovation and infrastructure improvements that were previously on hold. We realized we needed to get our web business sharpened up – and that’s what we’re doing right now.

So overall this pandemic has been a ‘good’ thing for me as a furniture retailer. My biggest concern now is finding a crystal ball that will tell me what lies ahead.

Darryl Sherman, President, Wilson Furniture
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?
Personally, the transition from an active life of work, travel and social activity to one of self-isolation, a changing work environment with a different schedule and an end to social activity has occurred with mixed reactions.

Surprisingly, adjusting to changing work schedules and no travel have been easier than limiting social activity and contact. Cancelling major holiday get-togethers and family milestones has been more difficult for me. Lessons learned include increased need for shared communication using old and new technologies. I love to write letters and have continued to do so, although e-mails and messaging apps are much faster. Of course, Zoom and other new tools are useful for personal and business communications. However, I long for the personal contact. This includes family and business. Personal meetings with factory representatives and attending trade shows are part of my DNA and are definitely missed. We all used to complain about too many trade shows. Not anymore.

I am also grateful for family and friends. I am so lucky to have a good relationship with my wife Louise. Working with my brother and partner Jory, we have weathered the COVID-19 challenges with a united front and are confident our business will emerge strong and viable.

Finally, I am learning to pace myself. I have always worked six or seven days, then after a few months take a travel break. Not having that option, I am now working five days and taking two off. Also, our store has reduced hours, so my work-life balance has improved.

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
During the first closure (back in March 2020), we analyzed all our expenses and made changes where possible to reduce them. We do this on an ongoing basis, but that closure expedited our need to conserve where possible. We also looked for opportunities to utilize available government grants and loans.

We also communicated often and clearly with our staff. As a small business this is essential. We tailored our staffing plan to meet their differing and changing needs. I am also aware long-term social isolation has an impact on everyone’s mental health and well-being. Continued attention to staff well-being is foremost on my mind.

When we re-opened in May 2020, we reduced our store hours (10am to 5pm) and closed two days a week (Tuesday and Wednesday). Private appointments were encouraged. Our staff accommodates customers by opening the store for them when we were closed or after hours. This has worked very well. Everyone has adjusted to this schedule, which we reactivated when we re-opened last month (February 2021).

In December 2019, I began a web site update which was initially completed in February 2020. As technology is changing quickly, we completely revamped our web site again in December 2020 and have spent the time and resources needed to make this site robust and user friendly. We are beginning to offer e-commerce options, online appointment booking, virtual tours and updated product in store. The future of marketing dollars will likely trend away from print and radio to social media and web marketing.

The shift from custom orders to in-stock items will be our biggest challenge as over 60% of our sales have been ‘special’ orders. We don’t import containers and with order times extending to six months, we are concerned our customers will opt for ‘in-stock’ items. So, we are continually revisiting categories to determine inventory levels. This will be our biggest challenge in 2021.

We believe the success of our business will rest on personal interactions with customers and providing a positive in-store shopping experience. With growing residential movement to our area, and the current home décor boom, we are anticipating strong sales as we recover sales decreases in 2019 (due to shutting of the local General Motors factory) and 2020 (thanks to the two-month closure this past spring and the closure after Christmas). We are already behind for 2021 due to the store closure and have our work ahead of us. We are optimistic that once we are past this pandemic, our customers will continue to make home furnishing a priority for the next several years.

Andrew Tepperman, President, Tepperman’s Furniture
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?
No matter who you are or what you do, the pandemic caused all of us to make changes…personal, spiritual and in business. The way we processed what was happening, and how we responded was very different between the first and second waves. Back in March (2020), we were ignorant and full of fear and confusion. We’ve learned a lot since then. I learned the importance of leadership during a crisis and saw what happened to countries when there was a leadership void or unwillingness to accept the need to lead differently. For those of us who lost family, friends and colleagues, I believe we all learned how fragile life is. I also learned your ability to manoeuvre through a crisis is predicated on the foundation you built within your operations. In a crisis, people are looking for stability and trust both in their employer and in the companies they do business with. This is when you need to leverage your reputation and operational excellence.

How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
We have a 10-year plan with goals. How we get there is always changing, regardless of a pandemic or technology and competitive disruption. That’s the norm. That’s reality. It hasn’t changed the fundamentals of the business or strategies. It hasn’t changed our culture or structure. Out of necessity we adopted the tools required, most of those tools being technology based. Another change has been how we look at goals and how we vision and communicate the future. We found it more effective to create mini goals throughout the year, focusing on winning each quarter and less concerned about a year-end goal. We also delayed many projects. This has not been the right time to implement major change. There are psychological, and ultimately executional consequences if people are not in the right frame of mind to adopt and to adapt.

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