Appliances meet critical needs during crisis

Image shows two men in the appliances section of their store

Home appliance retailers are essential businesses in Massachusetts. A strong argument advanced by Simon’s Furniture, Mattresses & Appliances in Franklin, Mass., may have helped make sure of that.

Today, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered non-essential businesses to close at noon Tuesday. Simon’s didn’t wait for the order. To help slow the spread of the coronavirus, it chose to close its showroom last week. But it continued to serve customers’ critical needs.

“During the COVID-19 crisis, the importance of getting critical supplies and products to Americans has never been greater,” Kirk and Jared Simon wrote to state and local officials over the weekend. “Appliances are some of the most important resources in someone’s home. Refrigerators are used to keep insulin and other important medications cold, keep emergency food frozen and help prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses. Washing machines and dishwashers are necessary to increase sanitation, especially in homes where loved ones are ill.”

Jared Simon is a member of the Home Furnishings Association’s Board of Directors and Government Relations Action Team. He and his father, who operate the 109-year-old family business, addressed their letter to members of their city council, state legislators and the governor. Although Massachusetts was not yet under a mandatory lockdown order, many furniture stores voluntarily shut their doors.

Every business that sells appliances should be treated the same

States that acted sooner also allowed “essential” businesses to remain open, but the definition of essential generally excluded furniture stores. The Simons made the opposite case, especially for furniture retailers who also sell appliances.

In fact, many home improvement chains, hardware stores and dealers that only carry appliances were still allowed to operate in states where furniture retailers were not. “We’re looking for fairness,” Jared Simon said.

The Simons’ advocacy appears to have worked in Massachusetts. Baker’s order issued late this morning was accompanied by a list of essential services. It included: “Commercial retail stores that supply essential sectors, including convenience stores, pet supply stores, auto supplies and repair, hardware and home improvement, and home appliance retailers.”

Appliances are a major business for Simon’s. “As a member of the New England Appliance & Electronics Group, we have $50 million of appliances in stock in Massachusetts,” the Simons’ letter said. “No other retailer, distributor or manufacturer has as much inventory in their possession to help out during this crisis.”

Reach out to elected officials in advance

The Simons wrote to elected officials in hopes of winning support for selling and delivering appliances if “non-essential” businesses were ordered to cease operations. The response was positive. Several city officials expressed support, and the message may have gotten through to the governor’s office.

They took a smart approach. It’s far better to advance the argument before a state issues an order and leaves furniture retailers off the list of essential businesses. It’s also important to stress that businesses take social responsibility seriously. Although Simon’s could reopen its showroom in wake of the governor’s decision, it won’t, Jared Simon said.

“We are not allowing anyone in any of our buildings except critical employees,” he said. “At our warehouse, we have two employees in an 18,000-square-foot building using separate bathrooms and staying physically away from each other. In our showroom and main offices, we have my father, my operations manager and myself. All using separate phones, separate offices and separate bathrooms. We are open for e-commerce business and via the phone, but we are not letting customers in the building.”

Delivery crews will take necessary precautions and leave products outside the home if customers prefer.

Beds, mattresses, home office furniture are needed, too

There are good arguments to make for the essential nature of other products furniture retailers sell. Rob Davis, president of HFA member Diakon Logistics, said one of his crews delivered beds for a fire station that needed more sleeping capacity.

In fact, Simon received a call today from a fire station in the nearby town of Walpole. It needed four recliners. Simon’s had them in stock and made the sale.

It could be an assisted living facility that needs more beds. Or it could be a family hosting additional relatives during the crisis. People who are working at home for the first time might need desks, chairs or other work-related furniture.

As some manufacturers cut their production, the public will look for sources of needed products that have inventory. That’s likely to be furniture retailers.

If retailers let their local and state governments know that they have needed products in their warehouses, they may be able to fill a void and keep a little revenue coming in.

The Simons’ proactive approach to serving customers’ critical needs sets a good example for other HFA members. Other furniture retailers should make their own case to state and local leaders about how they can responsibly meet the critical needs of their customers and communities.

Several other states also act

Do “essential” businesses include appliance retailers?

Connecticut: yes

Kentucky: unclear

Louisiana: unclear

Michigan: yes

Ohio: yes; also products needed to work at home

Indiana: yes, also products needed to work at home

[How to contact your elected officials]

[HFA COVID-19 resources]

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