In Their Own Words, Century Club Retailers Share How They Are Coping

By Chris Jensen

Mitchell Cohen is the fourth-generation owner of Cohen & Co. Hardware in Philadelphia.
Mitchell Cohen is the fourth-generation owner of Cohen & Co. Hardware in Philadelphia.»

Mitchell Cohen
Cohen & Co. Hardware—founded in 1913
Philadelphia, Pa.

“We’re there for our customers when it snows or storms, but I don’t remember anything like this. We’re in uncharted territory.

We’re letting in customers one at a time and only ones with masks. I’ve done everything in my power to get them. A while ago people were buying and shipping things over to China, so I thought I better get in more masks. My Orgill delivery driver drops off a skid of products every Friday at 9 a.m., but now he’s wearing gloves and a mask.

People are now staying home and doing wood projects, buying sandpaper and polyurethane. It’s eerie not seeing anyone while I’m walking to work. Everyone in Philly has been staying home for over three weeks. People seem to be sleeping in now, so I’m opening at 10 or 11 and I’m in the store seven days a week. We’re a neighborhood store, so we’re here to serve the neighborhood. Every independent hardware store is like that. Small hardware stores will shine, because people especially don’t want to go to a big box now.

Wipes are almost impossible to find, so I’m trying to keep up with rubber gloves and spraying everything down in the store with a can of Lysol. I’ll give customers a little mask or a box of gloves, because I want everyone to feel safe. I’ll donate masks to the hospital, but I get more satisfaction giving a mask to someone who’s been a customer for 40 years.

My doctor friends say as long as you wash your hands and stay apart you’ll be fine. If it gets worse of course I’ll shut down the store. In our business sales are need-driven. Certain items we’ve not sold for weeks. No one’s stopping to buy the little jewelry items my wife has on display. We’re blessed to still be open.”

The management team of Morris Hardware includes, left to right: John Houser, Shayna Roberts and Tom Schanken.
The management team of Morris Hardware includes, left to right: John Houser, Shayna Roberts and Tom Schanken.»

Shayna Roberts
Morris Hardware— founded in 1845
McConnelsville, Ohio

“Having been in business for 175 years with the same family at the helm since 1845, Morris Hardware has a unique skill of adaptability. With a combination of early, intense research, willing management and flexible staff, we started making proactive changes at the beginning of March to protect both our team and customers. We caught a lot of flak at first. Being in rural America, global problems tend to reach us much slower, and attitudes are harder to change. However, as the virus began to spread across the country, and as Ohio began taking strict proactive measures, we have noticed a shift in customers’ attitudes and behaviors in the store.

When Governor DeWine issued the stay-at-home order, we doubled down on measures in the store. We restricted customer access to the front of the store, essentially returning us to the good old days of full-service hardware. Staff wear some form of mask, change gloves between every transaction and practice frequent handwashing. We have installed a sneeze guard in front of our registers. Spaces are taped off 6 feet apart to allow customers to follow the social distancing requirements of the order. We’ve also reduced our hours from 7 am-6 pm to 10 am-2 pm, and serving those in the high-risk group from 9 am-10 am. We have been heavily promoting our call-ahead service and have been doing curbside pickup. We communicate and coordinate with our other local hardware stores regularly so we can work together to serve the community. 

While we were braced for a significant slowdown, we’ve noticed that our sales have stayed consistent with last spring. The combination of folks stuck at home and beautiful spring weather means business for a small-town hardware store. Paint flies off the shelf, and we’ve seen an increase in seeds and gardening supplies. If there is a silver lining, hopefully it is these hard-working people having time to tend to a garden and work on long put-off home projects. 

Our supply chain has been affected dramatically, just like everyone else. We receive updates often from our supplier, but we are still looking at mid-April or later until we can restock the items that people need to stay safe during this scary time. The good news is that True Value has launched production on a line of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer. We are hoping to see those items on our shelves in the coming weeks. We’ve been fortunate in having steady business to keep our store stocked with other items. Folks still need hardware, so we do our best to keep those pieces and parts on hand. 

The store is cleaned every morning before opening. High-touch surfaces, including doors, counters and registers, are all sanitized. Staff stays over an hour after close to repeat this process. We also do this process throughout the day, specifically areas where customers are served, which is a limited area now due to restrictions.

Starting April 6, we are limiting the number of customers allowed in the store at one time per the new Ohio order. However, we have noticed our customers being conscious and waiting until they see the store clear out before entering. 

We update our social media channels when we have a change to our policy, practices or services, and post signs on our front door and at the counter. Staff also have conversations with our customers to ensure they understand what we are doing and why it is important. 

The people that take advantage of curbside pickup are grateful for the limited contact. We are seeing an increase in this service as our customers become more aware of the risk and resources available. 

Morris Hardware is located in Morgan County, which just got its first confirmed case. Several surrounding counties have multiple cases. I attribute this not to our rural isolation, but due to lack of resources and testing. I feel this contributes to a false sense of security, making our community question preventative measures. While I do not know anyone that has tested positive in my immediate circle, many of the people in that circle are at risk and I worry about them every day. 

I struggle everyday with the concept of staying open as an essential business, losing many hours of sleep over it. On one hand, I have to consider the job security of my staff, and the resource that a hardware store provides to a small rural community. We have items that people desperately need right now, both for virus prevention and for crucial home repair, especially plumbing. On the other hand, we are facing a global pandemic. I am putting my staff (and by default, the families they go home to) on the front lines every day when the leading advice from every epidemiologist and global health expert is straight forward: STAY HOME.

The conversation among the management crew is ongoing. We reassess our strategy every day, weighing the pros and cons of staying open while continuing to work toward more preventative measures and limited contact services. As we inch ever closer to the inevitable peak of COVID-19, I foresee drastic measures to protect our staff and serve emergency needs. My heart is with those in heavily affected areas, and I am grateful for the information they provide to help us be prepared for what comes next.”

Rob Bantly, the fifth-generation owner of Bantly Hardware, helped restore the business to prosperity after a devastating flood wiped out the store in 1977.
Rob Bantly, the fifth-generation owner of Bantly Hardware, helped restore the business to prosperity after a devastating flood wiped out the store in 1977.»

Rob Bantly
Bantly Hardware—founded in 1861
Johnstown, Pa.

“The first week of March was up 25%. Second week up about 5%. On March 19, the governor of Pennsylvania shut down all construction activity and many government operations. He also asked everyone to stay home unless for an essential or life-saving purpose. 

I was very concerned about my employees’ well-being and tried to limit sales to essential ones. Unfortunately, the general public, while unemployed and staying at home, saw it as a great time to shop the local hardware store for some repair items or just to get out of the house for something to do. We tried to keep social distance, but our customers seemingly didn’t have a clue. 

By the end of March, we had to resort to locking the front door and taking care of customers by phone or email and taking the merchandise to their car waiting in the parking lot. We also went from 7 to 7 weekdays to 8 to 5 weekdays and 8 to 4 on Saturday. We have always been closed on Sunday. 

Sales for March 16-31 were down 24% and customer count was down about 15%. No large commercial sales so more retail with smaller average sales. Total sales for the month of March were down 3.67%. I was very surprised that’s all the sales dropped. Margin was up for March 3% and it was a profitable month.

I reduced staff essentially by letting anyone that didn’t want to work because of the risk of contracting the virus sign up for unemployment. The ones that wanted to continue to work we have kept working. The equivalent of three full-time employees chose not to work. Eight employees are still working and I will keep them on payroll. I am also paying them each $2 more per hour. No one that I am aware of has become sick. 

We have not had problems with inventory shipments except for the high-demand items. My employees have done an amazing job, as I have not gone to work for three weeks. I think maybe they are enjoying the boss being away! For the first week of April, sales were down 25%, customer count down 20% and margin up 4%. I have been surprised sales are fairly even across all departments. Paint and cleaning are up some while the remainder is fairly spread out as normal. We are still profitable even the first week of April.”

The crew at Jack’s Country Store designed and built coronavirus cashier shields out of on-hand hardware items.
The crew at Jack’s Country Store designed and built coronavirus cashier shields out of on-hand hardware items. »

Christy Caruthers
Jack’s Country Store—founded in 1885
Ocean Park, Wash.

“We have coped quiet well. We have tried to run as close to normal as we possibly can. We have maintained our store hours and staffing levels.

March sales are up compared to March of last year. Many of our local residents are staying closer to home to do the majority of their shopping. We have seen increases in some lines, especially our gourmet chocolates and nostalgic candy. Other big areas have been vegetable seeds, canning supplies and ammunition.

Curbside pickup has been received well. It started off slow, but our customer base continues to grow and we have had lots of repeat customers.

We have been very fortunate in being able to maintain our staffing levels. We have a great crew that is willing to stay extra, or come in on a day off to help out.

We have definitely had to modify our procedures and implement safety protocols, such as installing shields at the registers and limiting product returns. Employees are welcome to wear gloves and masks…if they choose.”

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