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Special Report: COVID-19 Update – Hardware Retailers Are Thriving During the Pandemic

By Chris Jensen
City Paint & Ace Hardware in Hoboken, N.J., donated more than 300 masks to local first responders.
City Paint & Ace Hardware in Hoboken, N.J., donated more than 300 masks to local first responders.»

Many hardware and home improvement retailers around the country are seeing sales surge despite operating in the middle of a pandemic. While most retailers would say it’s better than suffering massive declines, they would probably trade safety, security and a sense of normalcy for a slightly less rosy sales picture.

Several factors are leading to this sales bonanza. Hardware and home improvement retailers have been deemed essential businesses and allowed to remain open. People are not able to travel, go on vacation and eat at restaurants, so they are spending their time and money sprucing up their homes and yards. Garden centers have not been allowed to stay open in many areas, which lets hardware retailers capitalize on the surging demands for flowers and plants. Big-box stores in states such as Michigan have been restricted from selling non-essential items like paint and gardening supplies, leaving all that business to stores under 50,000 square feet.

However, perhaps the biggest reason for this sales bonanza is that independent hardware and home improvement retailers are a trusted and treasured part of their communities, and people feel safe and secure shopping there. They trust that the owners and managers are taking the steps necessary to keep customers and employees safe and healthy.

More importantly, this means that independent retailers will continue to thrive when life returns to normal (or the new version of normal), because the Shop Local trend will be significantly more entrenched.

The healthcare workers and first responders on the frontlines are the true heroes of America, but close behind are the people manning the hardware stores and grocery stores around the country, keeping Americans stocked up on the essentials while practicing social distancing. And let’s not forget the dedicated manufacturing staff, warehouse workers and truck drivers who ensure those essential items make it to the stores. What follows is our Special Report on how hardware and home improvement retailers are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, discover how consumer behavior is changing and learn how some retailers are finding creative ways to serve their communities.

At Alger Hardware in Grand Rapids, Mich., customers ring the bell and then wait on a numbered mat to get products delivered to them curbside.
At Alger Hardware in Grand Rapids, Mich., customers ring the bell and then wait on a numbered mat to get products delivered to them curbside.»

HOW’S BUSINESS FOR RETAILERS?

Jason Haley of Ace Hardware of Clarkston in Clarkston, Mich., says, “Our heads are still spinning. We finished April up 52 percent and so far after three days May has been up over 200 percent and two of the three days have been the largest since the store opened. All while maintaining social distancing, the onslaught of curbside pickups, along with reduced hours and reduced staff.”

In the weeks after the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, do-it-yourselfers have flocked to Superior Builders Supply in Loysville, Pa. Many are buying paint and deck stain and related sundries.

The store’s customer base is typically about 60 percent contractors, but in recent weeks, more DIYers have walked through the doors, according to Joel Eberly, the store’s manager. That new business has meant an increase in customer count of about 20 percent and a bump of about 10 percent in sales. However, some of the stores’ regular contractor business has tailed off since the beginning of March.

Justin Nena of Nena Ace Hardware in Morton, Ill., says, “Between our three stores, sales have been up 35 to 40 percent. The biggest impact on our business has been staffing. Keeping up with the online orders has been a challenge.” “We had the largest sales totals last month (April). We have increased customer count on a daily basis by 25 to 30 percent,” says Denise Lee of Lee Hardware & Building Supply in Waycross, Ga.

Paul Leahey of Schuele Ace Hardware in Buffalo, N.Y., says the situation has been quite an eye opener. “We’ve had an increase in sales and customer counts by about 25 to 30 percent. Everything has been selling. Customers have been settling into their homes and are looking for all kinds of projects, from painting to canning. We’ve been selling a lot of seed pods for germination. We’re also selling a lot of bagged goods, such as fertilizer,” he says.

The 17 employees at Jackson Building Supply in Starke, Fla., are sometimes literally running at full capacity.

“We’re normally busy this time of the year,” says President Eric Jackson. “When we all go home at night, we’re tired and exhausted. That’s how I can tell we’ve been very, very busy since the start of the virus outbreak.”

Business at the company’s other store in Lake Butler is equally intense. With sales and customer counts up, Jackson is even thinking about hiring additional employees to work the lumberyard and counters.

One of the most robust categories has been anything related to decking. The store has sold a lot of pressure-treated lumber and several deck packages, which include all the lumber and hardware to build a deck.

Alan Talman of Karp’s Hardware in East Northport, N.Y., says he is fortunate to be doing more business than ever before, despite operating about 20 fewer store hours per week.

“Our customer base is changing dramatically. We’re seeing a lot more new women customers every day. Women that would usually be out working are home and making time to come to the store. Many of our industrial customers are idle. Builders, schools and bus companies are closed, so industrial sales are down. No remodeling is being done, so those customers are broke,” Talman posted on Hardlines Digest.

In addition to masks, hand sanitizer, wipes and cleaning supplies, Talman says his Do it Best store is selling a lot of plastic “plexiglass” sheeting so people can make their own plastic shields.

“We’re sold out of vegetable seeds, and gardening in general is up. Homebrew supplies are practically sold out to the walls—the supply chain is not keeping up. Ammo, of course, is selling nationwide,” Talman says.

Scott Plummer of Plummer’s Ace Hardware in Farmington, Mo., said for the first five days of May, they were up more than 45 percent compared to last year. “We are worn out. I’ve been working 12-hour days, seven days a week for the last two weeks. I see no slowdown through May, but who knows?”

HOW IS CONSUMER BEHAVIOR CHANGING?

The Farnsworth Group and Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI) have partnered to provide manufacturers and retailers with updates on COVID-19’s impact on the home improvement industry. They are conducting weekly surveys of DIYers and contractors to quantify project behaviors.

The Farnsworth Group and HIRI have seen a steady increase in the percentage of DIYers doing projects the prior week. Intent remains strong as many homeowners continue to be at home and have disposable income being shifted to home improvement in lieu of entertainment, travel or regular retail spending.

When asked if they had started any new DIY projects around the house in the last week, 60 percent of homeowners said yes on March 23, a number that jumped to 71 percent on April 27, according to The Farnsworth Group/HIRI research.

When asked if they had planned to start these DIY projects prior to the impact of COVID-19, 79 percent said yes on March 23. On April 20, that number had dropped to 67 percent. Furthermore, 90 percent of homeowners on April 20 said the impact of COVID-19 caused them to start these DIY projects.

A research study conducted by Retail Systems Research (RSR) in late March on “The Early Effects of COVID-19 On Online Shopping” revealed that online shopping is increasing significantly.

When asked how the coronavirus outbreak would affect how often they would be shopping online, 60 percent of respondents said they would be shopping online more often than before, compared to 33 percent who said the same and 7 percent who said less often.

The top three things that will make shopping online more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the RSR study: inventory is unavailable (81%); no free shipping option (43%); and slow website (38%).

According to the RSR study, 94 percent of respondents started online shopping will be an important activity during the current crisis, while 45 percent said online shopping will be a “necessity” for them to live their daily lives.

Rick Radliff of Heisler’s Do it Best Hardware camped out on the store’s roof to raise money for the local food bank.
Rick Radliff of Heisler’s Do it Best Hardware camped out on the store’s roof to raise money for the local food bank.»

HARDWARE RETAILERS GIVING BACK

Independent, locally-owned hardware and home improvement stores are there to support the communities they serve when they need it most. What follows are some of the ways local stores are doing what they can to help their neighbors.

Heisler’s Do it Best Hardware in Spearfish, S.D., is supporting their community during the COVID-19 pandemic. They heard their community food bank needed help keeping up with increased demand and jumped right in to develop a plan to contribute.

Owner Rick Radliff went up on the store roof on April 3 and vowed not to come down until they had raised $15,000 for the Spearfish Community Food Pantry. “We have a lot of people to feed right now,” Radliff told a local TV reporter. “So it’s very very important that we get funds, because right now we are able to keep up, but it’s going down because people are really in hard times.” Click here and here to see the news videos of Rick, who was able to get off the roof on April 7.

Carter’s Ace Hardware, with multiple locations serving Lake, Orange and Citrus counties in Florida, is donating equipment to a local hospital to help in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The family-owned chain recently received a shipment of 3M P100 face mask respirators. Instead of putting them on the sales floor, they have been offered to AdventHealth Waterman, where the Carter family hopes they will be put to use by healthcare workers and first responders. After social distancing mandates started limiting most businesses to curbside delivery, Gordon Winters, the owner of five Ace Hardware stores in Vermont, began offering free American flags out of his stores to anyone who said they have shopped local since the pandemic started.

A Vermont Ace retailer has been giving out free U.S. flags to anyone who shops local.
A Vermont Ace retailer has been giving out free U.S. flags to anyone who shops local.»

Gertie Moore, a team member at Petersburg Do it Best Hardware in Petersburg, Ind., has made 500 masks (and counting) to donate to people in her community. She is giving them away for free but welcomes donations, which she passes on to local organizations.

“Gertie has been with us six years. At first when she had a limited number, we all were watching social media for anyone or businesses asking for masks and would tag her. She then would message them. Now the rush has lessened, so she leaves them on our counters for anyone to pick up,” says Robin Smith, who operates the business with her parents and husband.

Recently, York Ace Hardware in York, Neb., began a program to support local restaurants. “Eat Local/Save Local” is a campaign that will earn customers 10 percent off their purchase at York Ace Hardware when they order from a local restaurant and bring in the receipt.

City Paint & Ace Hardware in Hoboken, N.J., took to Facebook to announce a silent act of charity it had been doing all along. In recent weeks, the company donated more than 300 masks to Hoboken University Medical Center, Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Corp, HUMC Intensive Care Unit and the Office of Emergency Management Hoboken. The retailer also gave masks to many local nurses, homeless residents and the elderly in the community.

Gertie Moore at Petersburg Do it Best Hardware has made 500 masks to donate to the community.
Gertie Moore at Petersburg Do it Best Hardware has made 500 masks to donate to the community.»

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