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Industry Pros Discuss Challenges of COVID-19 on Business

 The unprecedented circumstances surrounding COVID-19 are having an effect on not only U.S. companies, but businesses around the world. Many employees are now working from home, manufacturing operations have slowed or stopped entirely and stringent germ-fighting tactics are being implemented.

How dramatic an effect the virus is having on businesses depends somewhat on where companies are located and the type of work involved. While many firms are able to have all employees work remotely without so much as a blip, others – especially those that are focused on product manufacturing and social interaction – are in flux. Some of the latter companies are feeling the sting already, while others have experienced little impact. Regardless of where they are in the chain, most firms concur that a ripple effect will be felt, though hopefully short term.

“Almost everything is affected,” notes Jodi Swartz, owner/principal designer, KitchenVisions in Natick, MA. “Clients’ children are home from college or out of school, hampering selection timelines. People are concerned about spending and scaling back or pushing off projects. Manufacturers have little stock. And employees are not showing up, and cutting back on employee hours. Trade shows, awards ceremonies and any event where a crowd is expected are getting canceled.

“It’s like the Twilight Zone,” Swartz continues. “The phone has stopped ringing with prospective clients and instead we’re just answering calls with problems, issues and alarming current events. That is somewhat maddening.”

Indeed, many kitchen and bath dealers and designers, as well other industry professionals, are concerned about delays that might result from the worldwide pandemic. While many projects will continue as planned with few delays or problems, the booking of future work is a bigger concern.

“Appointments are being cancelled for sales and installations, and home shows and community events are being cancelled, which is affecting leads,” offers JT Norman, director of business development, Kitchen Magic, in Nazareth, PA.

“I thought I would be able to meet with more clients if everyone was working from home, but that is not the case,” adds Richard Barr, senior designer/president, Plumberry Designs, in Florham Park, NJ. “Our meetings are being postponed and some projects cancelled for financial reasons.”

Jeff Koontz, designer, Chicago Custom Kitchens in Chicago, IL, reports that two of their clients have put their kitchen remodels on hold because of the impact on their ability to earn money.

“We have a client who wanted to remodel two bathrooms and owns a travel agency, but because of the virus she has lost customers for the past three weeks – canceling trips. The client may now cut out one or both of the bathrooms,” adds Greg Ulrich, president/owner, KGT Remodeling, in Naples, FL.

Cathy Norman, owner, Kitchen & Bath Design Center in Fort Collins, CO, also notes that they have had two to three projects put on hold. “The impact this is having on the stock market is the issue,” she stresses.

“I do see a slowdown, not necessarily from the virus itself, but from the stock market,” agrees LuAnn Flores, Plumbing Sales Professional Department lead, WDC Kitchen and Bath, in Agoura Hills, CA. “People who have planned major remodels or total builds are now waiting to see what the next few months bring.”

“I also feel that reduced stock portfolios and home equity will have a profound negative impact on our business,” remarks Larry Rosen, President, Jack Rosen Custom Kitchens, in Rockville, MD.

But Krista Agapito, director of sales, S&W Kitchens, in Winter Park, FL thinks that while COVID-19 is creating some uncertainty, “new clients are still calling in, asking for design and construction services.”

 

SHOWROOM TRAFFIC

It is expected that showroom traffic would slow down, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case. “Thus far, traffic is still very steady,” comments Elise Miller, designer, Curtis Lumber, in Ballston Spa, NY.

“My showroom is open, but people meet with me by appointment, and I am finding that more people are making appointments to come in!” observes Maria Stapperfenne, manager, Tewksbury Kitchen & Bath, in Whitehouse Station, NJ. “Is it because when they come in, there aren’t throngs of others here? Maybe… but my schedule is filling up with people who are willing to take the time to come see me during the day because they’re ‘telecommuting!’”

“Just like with snow storms, I expect that once banks and schools start closing, we will see more traffic in our showroom,” adds Courtney Smith, office director, Rogers Kitchens, in Norwich, CT. “But,” she notes, “I suspect it will be more tire kickers than potential jobs.”

The slow-down has come for many, however, and very suddenly. “Showroom traffic was still good until today,” notes Rick Beahm, president, Beahm and Son Ltd., in Evans City, PA, talking about last week. “It was down about 60% today.”

Beth Siegfried, showroom manager at a plumbing supply house in Akron, OH, reports that traffic late last week was markedly slower than weeks previous. But, she has found the silver lining in the slow down. “This dramatic drop-off in traffic for the moment feels like a much needed break in the action to catch up with a backlog of work.” Still, she believes it’s only the beginning.

And while John Lang, owner, Lang’s Kitchen & Bath, in Newtown, PA has not seen an impact yet, “we are expecting a 60-day period of little to no traffic.”

 

THE SUPPLY CHAIN

The concern on the customer side is matched by the consternation on the supplier side. A few supply lines have hit significant bumps, partially due to issues that preceded COVID-19. But, overall, delays have been minimal thus far. For many, preparations for the future are being put into place.

“I reached out to my main distributor for panel products for our cabinet shop and asked about availability of our main products, and he said at this time there was plenty in stock and several containers on their way from Europe,” assures Beahm.

“So far no vendors have closed their doors, so jobs are anticipated to be on schedule,” states Agapito. “That can easily change, of course, and we are handling things day by day as we receive more information.”

“Some of our product choices have changed since they were coming from abroad, and some projects are on hold as we await for shipping containers to be cleared to dock and unload,” adds Barr. He notes that, while his clients are extremely reasonable and understand the severity of the health crisis, he believes their patience may grow thin the longer the projects are delayed.

“Coming off a year of tariff delays, some of these new problems seem just like more of the same,” says Siegfried. She notes that they just received the first alert that some of their Italian products never shipped – weeks before the national shutdown. “Of course, all future shipments are a big question mark.”

“It is likely that there will be issues as materials stocked in the U.S. run out and can’t be replenished due to government restrictions,” concurs Rich Doud, A&D sales rep., Vestal Tile Distributors in Vestal, NY.

And, while Erich Russ, president, Stone Harbor Hardware, in Appleton, WI has moderate concern about delays in their supply chain and potential softening demand in the near term related to the virus, “I remain confident in the industry’s strength, especially when we enter the summer season.”

 

BUSINESS OPERATIONS

Most kitchen and bath designers and others note that their businesses will be unaffected short term because of the number of jobs booked and being worked on. Many have full schedules for six months or more, and can continue to work through the slow down. However, keeping employees on the job and healthy is a major concern, both for the company and clients.

“We are moving to phone and digital conferences for sales meetings and have met with our employees to reiterate the need to stay home if they feel sick, to keep their work areas clean and to wash their hands frequently,” says Kathryn Constantine, v.p., Brown Wood Inc., in Lincolnwood, IL.

“We are adding a ‘no hugs or handshake’ precaution to our practices,” reports Agapito. “Sanitizing of the showrooms before and after each meeting, and at the beginning and end of each day, is important for us all.”

“I am working with clients through remote conferencing in addition to an abundance of emails,” adds Barr. We have sanitizer at the door for clients who do come into the showroom. We have asked our delivery guys not to enter the showroom and leave all packages at the door.”

“We have clients with serious medical conditions and compromised immune systems, and we are taking their health concerns seriously,” stresses David Bannasch, senior project manager/design consultant, Bearded Builders, in Baltimore, MD. “We have attached a message with all outgoing client emails requesting that anyone having signs of a cold or fever reschedule their appointments. We’ve also notified our clients that any of our employees who have signs of a cold or fever are required to stay home or work from home as applicable. This includes both office and construction personnel.”

“Twice a day we wipe down light switches, microwaves, water coolers and other common surfaces,” offers Tath Hossfeld, owner, Tath Hossfeld Designs, in Seattle,  WA. “Will continue to do so till we run out of product.”

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