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Business Observer Wednesday, May 20, 2020 4 months ago

Furniture stores see range of impacts from pandemic

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Facing store closures, reopenings and supply chain issues, furniture stores are working to make sure customers feel comfortable shopping, whether in stores or online.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

The pandemic hit right as OFDC Commercial Interiors was delivering an order to Gulf Coast Medical Center, a Fort Myers hospital. “We were in there installing as they were doing COVID tests out front,” says OFDC Commercial Interiors President and Owner Joe Gammons.

That was one of the first signs things were going to be different for the Fort Myers-based firm, with nearly 50 employees, $30 million in annual sales and showrooms in Fort Myers and Sarasota. Another sign of the pandemic times? The company added a new product: a home office setup shipped to the customer in five days.

"We were planning on little to no revenue for April, May and June,” Gammons says. “It hasn’t turned out that way, thankfully. You just watch the numbers and react to the numbers, and that’s really all you can do. I’m sure every furniture store is in the same boat — you manage by sales ultimately.”

With people spending more time at home during the coronavirus, there’s a greater focus on furniture stores right now — and the steps some are taking to survive could help entrepreneurs navigate other industry challenges. 

The demand runs the gamut and, like many things coronavirus, is a moving target. Some people seek a desk chair for a newly established home office or want to replace a table that’s pulling triple duty as a spot for eating, working and doing homework. Other are discovering new furniture needs while others are realizing they’re not happy with their current furniture. It’s one positive impact of the pandemic for furniture stores amid a sea of negatives implications from the crisis.

And now, as more furniture stores reopen, companies are seeing people come in to shop in stores. “We feel like our customers want the furniture,” says Rooms To Go Vice President Peter Weitzner. “We’re definitely seeing people interested in making changes to the furniture in their homes.”

‘The things that we’ve done over the last two months — closing, reopening, cleaning precautions, signs, masks — all of these things are unprecedented. It’s not easy to make changes like that.’ — Peter Weitzner, Rooms To Go

For businesses with locations in multiple municipalities or states, the pandemic has presented challenges just with keeping up with changing guidelines and restrictions.

That’s the case for Seffner-based Rooms to Go, with over 150 stores in 10 states — from Texas to Tennessee, as well as Puerto Rico. “One of our lawyers who works here was studying every single applicable order, and we were following each order,” says Weitzner.

Rooms To Go and other area furniture retailers are contending with a variety of challenges during the coronavirus. They’re increasing cleaning efforts in stores. They’re coping with staff concerned about their health and jobs. They face supply chain issues with getting products to their stores and warehouses. And they’re working to convince customers it’s safe to buy from them, whether customers prefer to shop in a store or online. 

“The things that we’ve done over the last two months — closing, reopening, cleaning precautions, signs, masks — all of these things are unprecedented,” says Weitzner. “It’s not easy to make changes like that.”

Chain Reaction

Even during the strictest periods of social distancing, many furniture stores continued advertising, both in print and on TV, not wanting to lose market share or brand awareness. “We wanted people to think of us when they did ultimately get back out to shop for furniture,” Weitzner says, adding the company's ad buys were somewhat lower in April.  

The Furniture Warehouse, with locations in Ellenton, Bradenton, north Sarasota, south Sarasota, Venice and Port Charlotte, has likewise maintained an advertising budget, including promoting its online presence. It also publicized information about how customers can call a telephone number if they needed help with the website and how customers can even Facetime with employees.

Advertising is part of the strategy for the weeks ahead, too, says owner Stephany Richmond. "Make sure your customers know that you’re open," she says, "that you care about sanitizing in store and that you have good product at great prices.”

Businesses that sell furniture for offices have seen varied impacts during the pandemic, just like home furnishing retailers.

In April, sales at OFDC Commercial Interiors, for example, were down 35%. “May looks to be a good month,” says Gammons. “It’s a mixed bag of no one’s really cancelling orders, but we’re not seeing as many office reconfigurations as I thought.”

Courtesy. OFDC Commercial Interiors President and Owner Joe Gammons says the company has added a new product: a home office setup that’s shipped to the customer in five days.

Gammons has received some requests for items such as stackers and screens that provide more barriers between employee workstations. In addition to influencing modifications to existing furniture, Gammons thinks it’s possible the pandemic may also lead to longer-term changes with offices — a return to the cubical. But he hasn’t had any customers completely clear out their offices and buy new furniture yet. “I think everybody pretty much seems to be just holding right now and seeing what the economic damage will be before they place any major orders,” he says.

While businesses determine the extent of losses and what might be ahead, his customers are focusing on small fixes to create additional physical barriers between employees. Gammons admits those additions won’t stop the spread of the virus, but he says it gives employees a sense of security.

OFDC is facing challenges from a supply chain perspective as well. Factories have been shut down all over, Gammons says, and restrictions in places such as Michigan, New York and Mexico have posed issues. He’s had to tell customers their furniture is delayed and he’s not sure when it will arrive. “The decline in sales and the interruption in the supply chain have been the two challenging tasks,” he says.

Weitzner says the supply chain has been complicated for Rooms To Go, too. He says, “The stock right now is very good, but we’re foreseeing that there will be issues, which we’re dealing with.” 

A Click Away

One advantage Rooms To Go had heading into the pandemic was that it had recently updated its website. “We love our website,” says Weitzner. “We’re very happy with what it does. When we were closed, people were buying from us online more than they had been before.”

Weitzner declines to disclose the specific increase in online sales while its brick-and-mortar stores were closed, but like Richmond, he thinks some of the uptick could be a result of people spending more time at home and wanting to improve their environments. “Maybe they want to change their surroundings because they’re seeing their stuff so much more,” he says. “People may be foreseeing that they’re going to be home more in the coming months.”

The Furniture Warehouse saw more online orders recently, too. Online business was up 110% in April over last year, according to Richmond. “We added three new employees to just do the online because that’s how much busier it’s been,” she says.

Courtesy. The Furniture Warehouse has seen more online orders recently. Online business was up 110% in April over last year.

The company hasn’t laid off any employees and has continued to pay its employees their full salaries. “I think that’s paid off, too,” say Richmond. “When people are coming back to work, employees are still attached to you.”

On the office furniture side, many businesses won’t let OFDC Commercial Interiors into their offices because of the pandemic, so it’s been harder to make sales calls. “We’re spending a lot more money on the internet to try and get our name out there,” says Gammons.

OFDC has gotten a greater number of questions and requests for information through its website lately. It’s also been hosting Zoom meetings with customers, although some still want to come into the showroom to see items. “With office furniture," he says, "people tend to want to put their hands on it.”

What’s in Store

Almost all Rooms To Go stores were required to close for various periods of time during the pandemic. “Some jurisdictions allowed us specifically to stay open and we did,” says Weitzner. “Every store in Florida was closed.”

The store closings led the company to furlough some employees, but now the company’s stores are opening back up. “The stores that they’ve opened are doing pretty well,” he says. “They’re doing better than expected. What we’re finding is people are happy. They’re coming into the store happy and pleased to be there. They seem to be satisfied with the things we’re doing to take precautions.”

Rooms To Go has its employees wearing face coverings, extra crews cleaning stores and is insisting people practice social distancing in stores. It helps that Rooms To Go stores are large, making it easier for people to social distance. With some government restrictions in place for store and restaurant occupancy, Rooms To Go is thinking about taking those measures a step further, limiting the number of customers even more. That might be a factor especially during Memorial Day, a popular furniture-buying weekend.

As an additional incentive for customers and an extra precautionary measure, it’s also offering free doorway delivery for customers who don’t want delivery people entering their homes. With doorway delivery, items are left outside the home by the front door or in the garage. “We’re finding a lot of customers want to take advantage of that,” says Weitzner.

Unlike Rooms to Go, The Furniture Warehouse only closed for about three days during the pandemic. The company closed its stores and then reopened them after rereading the stay-at-home order from the governor and realizing certain essential items it sold — office furniture for the home, lift chairs and more — allowed it to be excluded from the order. Before reopening, the company also spoke with a county commissioner to get a clear understanding it was allowed to stay open.

Richmond says sales were down about one-third in April, but as more people have ventured from their homes recently, business has picked up. “I think there are some pent-up emotions,” she says, with people spending more time at home leading them to want new furniture.

The Furniture Warehouse also started offering free doorway delivery during COVID-19. It offers white-glove delivery, too, for which there is a cost, and drivers now wear gloves, masks and booties. In its stores, The Furniture Warehouse has focused on social distancing, wearing masks and doing extra cleaning. “We offered some good buys, extra financing and free delivery,” Richmond says. “That has brought customers out in the marketplace.”

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