Pandemic Perspectives: Hardware Store Owner on Being Deemed Essential

How COVID-19 Is Impacting Small Business Owners

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Joyce Chan @ The Balance 

Every unemployment filing, furlough, and closed business reflects a personal experience. As the statistics pile up, we’re committed to sharing stories of how COVID-19 continues to shape people’s lives and livelihoods—how they’ve coped, what they’ve learned during the crisis, and how they’re moving forward. 

While COVID-19 has caused hundreds of thousands of small businesses across the U.S. to close their doors either temporarily or permanently, Gina Schaefer’s operations have endured. As an owner of several ACE hardware stores in the D.C. area, the 49-year-old entrepreneur’s business was deemed essential—though she’s had to address several challenges along the way. Speaking with The Balance, Schaefer discusses being a co-op, supply chain issues, and adapting her operations to become safer for staff and customers. This interview has been edited for length. 

Tell us about running ACE hardware stores and navigating the pandemic. 

I own 13 ACE stores in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Across the country, home improvement stores, including small hardware stores, were made essential. Probably the benefit to us was that everybody wanted to fix everything, whether it was broken or not. And so, we were essential, but we had to one, figure out how to make sure our employees stayed and that we were all safe, and two, how to deal with the public that wanted to buy a lot of things that weren't necessarily essential. 

Did you have to make a major shift in business operations and managing employees? 

We’ve always run our business giving our managers a lot of autonomy, but we went almost overboard with autonomy when COVID started. We stopped our back office, which is like marketing, HR, inventory, and they were sent to work at home. Then, my husband and I continued to work in our headquarters space, but we didn't go visit the stores. We implemented a Zoom call three times a week with the managers—one, to provide moral support, but two, really just to check in. We had dramatic increases in online sales, and we were not equipped for that. So, we had to really increase and modify operations to handle all the online sales. We had to change operations to modify and explain curbside pickup.

 The customers didn't know how you could do curbside pickup if you didn't have a car. And a lot of our locations don't have parking lots. So, it's a walk-in customer who can just call me from the curb. That's great, except that little stores don't have 85 phone lines. Our phone lines went berserk and people got really mad because they couldn't get through to us. So, we immediately implemented a texting app at some of our stores so that customers could text us. But then you had to teach employees what texting protocol was: You respond in complete sentences. You don't text like you're texting with your buddies.

The ways to communicate expanded, which meant we had to do a lot of staff training. But we gave the managers the ability to close early if they felt nervous or something happened. We told the stores 10 to 15 customers was the max, and we hired bouncers at some of the stores because we had lines.

Sounds like you put in a good amount of safety measures. 

We were very early in putting the [plexiglass] shields up, and making sure we had shields available for other businesses to buy. We were sourcing PPE, toilet paper, and hand sanitizers from a variety of sources that we didn't buy from before. ACE is a co-op if you didn’t know; we're not a franchise. So, we buy most of the stuff through ACE to support our co-op, but they had the same supply chain issues that everybody else did. And when they couldn't get sanitizers and masks, we had to look elsewhere. Otherwise, we would have been waiting for ACE to figure out how to distribute to all of us. And so, we started buying from some local coffee shops that started making sanitizer, or from distilleries. We called on a lot of these resources that had pivoted, which was really helpful for a workaround outside of our normal buying system.

From a staffing standpoint, how have they been affected? What was that transition like?

We're always really busy in the spring, and so we always ramp up staffing. We made the mistake of not ramping up because we didn't think we were going to have a spring season because of COVID. And then we had to scramble to catch up, because everyone wanted to start a garden, and everybody wanted to build a backyard patio room at their house. And so we really had to scramble to hire people to help us with the lawn and garden season demand, knowing very well that we were still only going to let 10 people in the store.

So, we had to keep up with the demand, a lot of which came through the online channels. We had to get new people trained—and do a lot of that virtually—and get them to understand how serious working in a retail environment was during COVID. This meant social distancing, and "If a customer won't come in with a mask, don't let them in,” and “don't hold their phone when they want to show you their project."

What were the biggest challenges in terms of making this transition? 

We feel very fortunate to have been able to stay open. I feel embarrassed to complain when I know all of the small businesses and restaurants around me had to close. I realize that we were fortunate, but that doesn't mean that we didn't deal with the stress of employees who tested positive, and then figuring out how to clean the stores. The effect of all of the other retail businesses falling apart is that we were shown a little bit of sympathy. Like, if somebody who normally would shop at Home Depot couldn't or wouldn't, they were a little more forgiving to us. 

I think a lot of customers found they were more comfortable that we were smaller and we would talk to them. But there were customer behavioral changes, with them wanting things to be virtual or over the phone, and employee stress—it was just a different dynamic in the workplace. Normally, if you would walk into one of my stores, we would immediately ask you what we could help you find. We would walk you to the item. We would talk you through your project. But we had to say to everybody, "You have to provide really good customer service without doing any of that. Don't walk them to the product. Don't stand there and try and help them." We had to completely change how we interacted with customers.

What were the products that were in high demand? You mentioned gardening.

At the very beginning of the season, patio furniture was very difficult to find. We ran out of fire pits, because it was still kind of chilly in the spring and everybody wanted one. We started to run out of plants because everybody was planting vegetables and seeds. Not necessarily flowers, but the seed companies ran out of seeds and everybody wanted to start seed growing inside so they could create a garden. And now, canning jars because they’re really in season. Vegetables are at their end, and anybody who grows a ton of tomatoes and wants to can them is trying to do it now. So, keeping them in stock continues to be a challenge. 

What do you look forward to now? 

We're not sure. Do we think we're going to keep these customers? Did we have a chance to win over a lot of [new customers]? We've always been big advocates for shopping local and supporting local businesses. But again, we're held in different standards, and a lot of people would just much rather shop on Amazon or go to Home Depot. But hopefully, we converted some folks. Looking forward to 2021, we’re thinking maybe we will stay this busy. Maybe we've found a lot of new, happy customers. And presumably, the supply chain will bounce back and we won't be out of stock with as many things.

So what have you learned as a business owner throughout this pandemic? Has it changed your perspective?

I'm always learning something. We have 30,000 items, and so I always tell all my staff we can never say we know enough, because there's always a new product to learn about. I have been so impressed with the businesses that have had to pivot and do new things. I know there's still going to be a lot of fallout, but there are so many restaurant owners and distilleries that have just really started to do some cool things, and have changed their business model because of COVID. Always growing and sharing is one of our core values, but this has really taught me the serious importance of being willing to share the knowledge that we have in products and that we have with the outside communities. 

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