When Hoot Judkins Furniture in Redwood City, Calif., closed earlier this week after a shelter-at-home order throughout the San Francisco Bay area, co-owner Bobby Watson worried about the 100 or so deliveries on his schedule. He wasn’t allowed to make them.
He dutifully sent emails to all those customers explaining why they wouldn’t get their furniture in the foreseeable future.
At a time when revenues suddenly were cut off, the idea of giving refunds was frightening.
“We were afraid people would cancel,” Watson said. “But only one did. Many of those orders were paid in full.”
His customers were almost universally understanding and willing to wait until conditions improve to get their furniture.
A sample of responses:
Customers understand why you can’t deliver
“Thank you for letting me know my furniture delivery will be postponed. I was anticipating that it would be, and your prompt email saved me a phone call! I will happily anticipate my new furniture delivery once we get through this unsettled time. Take care of yourselves and your employees as all of us in the Bay Area shelter in place and do our part to slow the spread of the Coronavirus.”
“Thank you for your prompt note. We understand completely and look forward to receiving our bed as soon as you are able to deliver it.”
“I was wondering if the delivery would go as planned considering the current environment. I will look forward to hearing from you when things have returned to normal. Thanks for letting me know. Hope things improve quickly for everyone’s sake.”
Now that the entire state of California is under a similar order, other Home Furnishings Association members there also must count on the patience of customers. If they have good relations with those customers, and communicate clearly and honestly with them, they may be as pleasantly surprised as Watson and his sister, co-owner Vicki Marchant.
Emergency loans will be needed
That doesn’t mean Hoot Judkins Furniture and countless other businesses in California and elsewhere — Pennsylvania is another state where a similar order was issued Thursday — won’t need massive assistance to survive during the crisis. Watson and Marchant already have applied for a Small Business Administration emergency loan.
They also had to send their employees home on furlough. Under emergency circumstances, those workers will be eligible for special unemployment benefits. Other government assistance likely will follow soon.
Emergency SBA loans have provisions that allow for forgiveness of the portion of funds used to keep employees on the payroll. The question for many businesses, including furniture retailers, is whether they have enough cash in the meantime to continue paying employees when no work is available.
HFA’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Chris Andresen, helped put Watson in contact with staff members for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. Watson said he wasn’t sure whether they could expedite his loan, but “it certainly can’t hurt. I think we are extremely fortunate that we acted so quickly to ask for help. I imagine that every congressional office is about to be slammed with requests if they aren’t already. Everyone should reach out to their representatives if they are being impacted by the current events. It’s important that our leadership at both the federal, state and local level understand the impact this is having on us and our industry.”
What is a critical or life-sustaining business?
Public health conditions vary from state to state, and so do state government recommendations or orders for businesses. Until late Thursday, “non-essential” businesses in Pennsylvania were “urged” to close. Some furniture stores did, while others didn’t. That changed abruptly. Now, Pennsylvania only allows “life-sustaining” businesses to operate their physical locations. Retail furniture stores are excluded from the list of businesses defined as life-sustaining.
Closure orders now apply in three South Florida counties, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
California’s order refers to federal guidance published Thursday, “Identifying critical infrastructure during COVID-19.” Furniture stores are not named as critical infrastructure.
Yet, many furniture stores sell appliances. If a family’s refrigerator or washing machine breaks down, the family is presented with a health problem. It should be allowed to purchase a replacement and either pick it up or have it delivered.
As more people work at home or anticipate doing so, they may need home office furniture.
If members of extended families move in together during the crisis, they may need more beds, dressers, sofas or other home furnishing products.
It is important for furniture retailers to send those messages to their local, state and federal representatives.