Hardware Retailers Battle COVID Issues

By John Fix III

Brian Mushel of Justus True Value Home & Garden was seeking advice on a COVID travel policy for employees.
Brian Mushel of Justus True Value Home & Garden was seeking advice on a COVID travel policy for employees.»

Hardware retailers around the country continue to face a never-ending list of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to losing staff members, developing procedures to keep the store cleaned and disinfected, installing plexiglass shields and adopting curbside service, retailers have dealt with ongoing out of stocks from an overtaxed supply chain. We all are spending an inordinate amount of time figuring out where to source in-demand and even regular stock items.

Read on to learn what COVID-related topics have been discussed on Hardlines Digest over the past month.

Retailers like Mazzone Hardware in Brooklyn, N.Y., are on the front lines of the mask issue.
Retailers like Mazzone Hardware in Brooklyn, N.Y., are on the front lines of the mask issue.»

COVID Travel Policies

Brian Mushel of Justus True Value Home & Garden in Clarks Summit, Pa., expressed concern about employees traveling on vacation. “COVID-19 is here to stay for now. This is creating a new, ever-changing world. It is only a matter of time before someone who works for us, or shops here, becomes sick. Employees are going on vacations and socializing in groups, putting them in contact with many other people. We are thinking about having a travel policy in writing for employees traveling to states with a high number of cases, requiring that they must quarantine for 14 days. Do we need to pay someone while they are on a quarantine? Masks are required in Pennsylvania in all public areas and businesses. I would like to hear if anyone has put together anything like this?” he asked.

Randy Patzer, who operates two Ace stores in Michigan, responded, “I have not put together a travel policy, but we did have a scare with a teenage employee the other day. He went to a house party (no masks) 14 days earlier and then spiked a fever. He is being tested. So, I just reinforced our mask policy in writing and will clamp down on all employees not following it. The six-foot distancing policy has got to be followed at all times. When you think about the consequences of not following social distancing it is downright scary.”

Brandon Buckalew of Local Ace in East Grand Forks, Minn., replied, “If they can’t follow the rules and suggestions, why should we pay them? We could be forced into several shutdowns if we shut down every time an employee got sick. It’s become political, when it shouldn’t have.”

Trixy O’Flaherty of Gordon Hardware in DeKalb, Ill., posted, “I am also putting together a formal policy for travel. We had a kid a month ago take a couple days to help his uncle move to Virginia. We are in northern Illinois. I didn’t allow him back for 14 days after he got back in town. If anyone has been thinking of going anywhere they are talking to me first. The other thing I’m working on is when someone tests positive here what will our plan be? I’ve just got the idea that we close for a few days to get everyone tested and clean the store, but our county hasn’t offered much more than that as far as direction.”

I added my perspective from Cornell’s True Value. “There are a lot of things about New York that make it challenging to do business, but in my opinion the executive orders and guidance from the governor, the state and the county over the past few months have made it easier to manage our COVID response at the store. We don’t have to justify our rules about masks or come up with our own policies for quarantine. The state provided tax credits to allow us to give staff paid time off related to COVID back in April and May, when the state was still a hot zone. More recently, the state has put quarantine orders in place if you travel to a number of other states, and that has made it easy for us to tell a staff member returning from Texas (for example) that he or she must quarantine. It takes a lot of the responsibility and blame out of our hands,” I posted.

Trixy O’Flaherty of Gordon Hardware wondered what to do if a staff member tested positive.
Trixy O’Flaherty of Gordon Hardware wondered what to do if a staff member tested positive.»

Coin Shortage

Virgil Cox of Cox Hardware & Lumber in Houston noted the growing coin shortage. “We were advised by our bank that the Federal Reserve in Houston is running low on coins and has restricted the supply to local banks. Our banker advised me that they will likely run out of coins. We were essentially told the same thing by another bank,” he posted.

“We’re having the same problem in Smyrna, Georgia. We have two banks and both ran out of change on Wednesday. We have an employee whose wife works at a bank and we were able to get some from her,” noted Susan Harlan of Vickery Hardware.

Joel Zaske, with two Ace stores in Arizona, responded, “It was on the news. Feds thought the economy was going to crash, so they slowed production of coins plus dealing with all the COVID stuff and staffing. Now they are working hard to get caught up.”

Dave Barone of Barone Hardware & Auto in Bronson, Mich., posted, “As of last week, our bank has restricted us to five rolls of quarters per week. We have enough to get by for a while. Other stores in our area have implemented exact change only or credit card. I asked our bank how long this was going to continue and they don’t know. Just one more thing to deal with because of COVID-19.”

Wearing Masks

Zaske in Arizona noted that their town council said no to masks, but the mayor now has a proclamation to wear them in public. “Now we have to enforce something that is highly debatable. Any words of wisdom for those that have been through this?” he asked.

I noted that in New York there is still an executive order from the governor that allows businesses to require masks to enter their premises. “We enforce the rule, partially for customer protection, but mainly to protect our staff. Yes, the rate of infection has gone down in our area, but the virus is still out there and likely will be for some time. Depending on where you are, it may be tougher to enforce. At a minimum, I would recommend that your staff wear masks for their own protection, and also to alleviate the fears of customers that do wear masks,” I posted.

“I have no trouble erroring on the side of caution. My own personal science advisor and a research scientist in the field of bio-medical engineering (my son), says I should wear a mask, so I do. Our employees wear masks and 99.9 percent of our customers do,” responded Alan Talman of Karp’s Hardware in East Northport, N.Y.

Matthew Abramsky of Tony’s Ace Hardware in Hazel Park, Mich., replied, “Wear a mask in public! Make sure your employees wear a mask. Don’t let anyone in your store without a mask. Tell those who don’t comply to go to Home Depot. It’s very simple. Don’t debate facts or science.”

Zaske added, “Probably 40-50 percent of our community already wears masks and 60 percent of our staff wear them. I have always given our staff masks, but I have not had to enforce anything until now. We will be enforcing it 100 percent. What I want is any advice of what to expect from the unruly, rude customers and what you have found works best to deal with these people.” 

Talman replied, “Humility works for me. That rare customer that wants to engage in political discussion about wearing a mask is just a drag on my productivity. I go for the very humble answer, something like this: ‘Yes sir, I totally agree that this is ridiculous, but it is my obligation to protect my employees. I’m held to a different standard than you are. We wear masks in here.’ For the arrogant wanderer who announces that he forgot his mask at home, I say, ‘OK, wear this mask, and I’ll just add the 2 bucks to your ticket.’ This has worked pretty well. I have the masks right on the front counter, so it’s easy.”

Sue Miller at Bob’s True Value in Whiting, N.J., interjected, “Masks are required in all retail stores in New Jersey. What gets me is that the people who try to come in without one always kick the door on their way out. They don’t want to wear a mask, but they don’t want to touch anything like a door handle. We are in the middle of 14 senior citizen communities and the elderly don’t pay any attention to social distancing. We have to constantly tell them to back up in the checkout line as they crowd the person in front of them. They also take their masks off all the time and I have to keep telling them to put it back on. They take them off to talk or to cough or sneeze, which defeats the whole purpose.”

Harlan at Vickery Hardware, posted, “Here at my store in Georgia we had a great initial response to masks, I’d say 85 percent of my customers came in wearing a mask—myself and all my staff wear them as well. But recently, I’d say my customers have dropped off to about a 50 percent rate of wearing the mask. I don’t know if it’s our governor’s early opening protocol that caused this or the fact that masks have become so politicized. It is discouraging to me.

Patty Schaffer of Foster’s Ace Hardware in Newberry, Mich., replied, “We started Memorial weekend with mandatory masks. After people were not reading the signs posted on the doors, we put our circular holder on the sidewalk in front of the door with a stop sign. Underneath it, it states masks are mandatory, no entry without, no exceptions, no excuses, no arguments. Every day, we have some that will ignore the sign and come in regardless. When we spot them we tell them masks are required. We have a few wanting to argue and say they will shop elsewhere.”

Steve Richmond of Richmond True Value Hardware in Braintree, Mass., noted, “In our town we are fined if we let a customer shop without a mask. Most people come in wearing masks. For the few that don’t, we keep a box of masks at the front register and offer them a free mask. For less than 50 cents we avoid all arguments, keep a customer happy and make a sale.”

From the customer perspective, the vast majority of our customers at Cornell’s True Value are fine with wearing masks since it’s required nearly everywhere they go. There really is no debate about it locally, it’s just how things are, which makes it less stressful for our staff. I realize it’s different depending on where you are in the country. 

John Fix started Hardlines Digest in 1996. The list was run for many years using servers in John’s hardware store, Cornell’s True Value in Eastchester, N.Y., but the list has migrated to Google Groups. There are currently more than 2,300 subscribers reading Hardlines Digest. To read more or subscribe, go to www.hardlinesdigest.com.

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