By Chris Jensen
Vashon Island is a short 15-minute ferry ride from Seattle—a city that has been hit hard by the coronavirus. When stay-at-home orders were issued early on, Vashon Island residents focused even more on shopping local instead of venturing to the mainland.
“We’re the second-largest store on the island, and people here are very eager to support local,” states Earl Van Buskirk, who was born and raised on the island. He has owned Island Home Center & Lumber for 32 years.
Putting Employees First
When the pandemic hit, Van Buskirk had to quickly make some adjustments, even as business was taking off. He decided to take care of his 50 employees as the first priority in order to provide better service for the residents who needed them. They implemented new cleaning routines to keep staff and customers safe, doubling the outside cleaning service that came in. They put up plexiglass shields and encouraged employees to wear masks and gloves.
With all the new policies and procedures implemented, Van Buskirk further encouraged his employees to set an example as leaders in their community. “I encouraged my team to wear masks early on. Most did, then it became required. A few weeks later, it was required of customers,” he points out. “We’ve given out several thousand masks and had very few who refused to wear them.”
Keeping his team informed has been a top priority, and Van Buskirk tried to communicate stability. He emailed them twice a week to make sure they were updated on policies, procedures and the latest CDC guidelines. He talked to his five department managers throughout each day. He allowed employees who did not feel safe at work to stay home.
“I had one employee who’s susceptible and wanted to stay home and four people that worked from home via remote computer access doing purchasing and coordinating sales for contractor sales,” Van Buskirk points out. “We’re doing our best to protect our team and our customers.”
When the coronavirus hit, Island Home Center began to see contractor sales decline dramatically. However, as those sales declined, retail sales began to soar for the Do it Best member.
“In mid-March, the state shut down contractor business, so that side dropped 45-50 percent for three months,” Van Buskirk explains. “Our contractor business came back in late May and we almost made up the decrease in June and July.”
He adds, “Our retail customer counts were up 10-12% in March and April and our average ticket went up 40 percent as people were buying a lot more stuff. Our garden center and paint business were way up.”
Since Van Buskirk received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, he was able to continue paying all his employees even during the lull in contractor business. He has also paid out three bonuses so far for employees who have worked through the pandemic.
EXTENDING A HELPING HAND
To prioritize safety, the store figured out how to conduct a “touchless sale.” Customers can call or order online and pay for their order before they reach the store. Employees then package their order and load it into their car without customers having to set foot in the store. Transitioning to Epicor’s iNet platform will make the e-commerce and inventory control process go even smoother, Van Buskirk says.
Island Home Center is more than a retail hardware store or a pro lumberyard, and Van Buskirk is constantly looking for places to fill needs. “Because of our location, we can do things that yards can’t do on the mainland,” he says.
They are big on housewares and sell a lot of unusual items such as feed for animals, apparel, sporting goods and fishing supplies. The store also sells beer, wine and liquor, which has been up 200 percent since the pandemic.
When local first responders were in need of masks, they donated a large quantity of their own stock. When their island needed a location to administer drive-through testing, Island Home Center donated tents so people could get tested without having to leave their cars, along with propane tank heaters and propane for the medical team. The store has hosted several blood drives in the parking lot.
“We support Rotary, do a lot with the local schools and churches, give to kid sport teams in the community and help the food bank as much as possible,” Van Buskirk says. “During the pandemic I’ve had local restaurants cater meals to our team.”
CONTINUING TO GROW
With 30,000 square feet of retail space and a 30,000-square-foot warehouse for LBM, Island Home Center will do between $12 million and $13 million in sales from 35,000 SKUs this year, according to Van Buskirk.
The business was doing $350,000 in annual sales with three employees when he bought it back in 1988. It had been in the same family for 65 years, so Island Home Center is coming up on its 100th anniversary. Van Buskirk had previously spent 18 years at a wholesale LBM company based in Seattle, so he had been in hundreds of lumberyards over the years and learned what didn’t work from the failing ones and what does work from the successful ones.
He has been a Do it Best member for 28 years, and says the co-op has done a good job sourcing products for them during the pandemic. “Do it Best is our first and best choice for most products and has been very good for my business over the years,” Van Buskirk says.
“I’m 74 years old and I’ve never seen anything like this pandemic,” he adds. “Very unusual times. I feel fortunate that we’re an essential business.”
Van Buskirk was surprised and honored to hear Island Home Center was named a Beacon Award winner for 2020. “Any time you’re recognized it means your team members are the reason. We’ve had our challenges this year, but they’re the ones who make my business be successful and that’s why my company has won an award,” he says.