Fires, power outages challenge California retailers

Fast-moving fires and long, dark nights. Those are some of the challenges Californians – including furniture retailers – are facing.

“The ridgeline is burning toward us, but the wind is blowing against us,” Norbert Moniz, owner of Home Furnishings Association member A Royal Suite in Santa Clarita, said Friday afternoon. “If the wind doesn’t change, we’ll be fine.”

The Saddleridge fire, raging south of Santa Clarita, covered 5,000 acres, destroyed dozens of structures and forced some 100,000 evacuations. It’s bad, but Moniz, who has three stores in the area, has seen worse.

“We typically open our store and warehouse for fire relief and earthquakes,” he said. With 50 beds on his floor, he’s housed evacuees when the Red Cross shelters have filled. He didn’t expect that would happen this time, but conditions were chaotic throughout the region.

“I can’t go to the other stores because traffic is horrendous,” Moniz said. Fierce Santa Ana winds, gusting up to 50 mph in Santa Clarita, were adding to the trouble.

Every employee came to work

Southern California Edison began cutting electricity to thousands of customers Thursday night.

“Thank God our power has been on, but some of our employees lost their power about 11 o’clock last night,” Moniz said. “Some of them showered here.”

“Every single employee came to work today,” he added. “That says a lot about my people.”

That was a good thing because, said Moniz, “there are customers in the store.”

Farther north, the lack of electricity didn’t force HFA member Griffin’s Furniture Outlet in Clearlake, Calif., to close this week, but it wasn’t good for business, either.

“There was not much foot traffic,” owner Dan Griffin said about the first day of the power outage Wednesday. He was waiting to open Thursday morning but didn’t anticipate many walk-in customers.

Coping without electricity

“I was able to handle calls, and we did some deliveries,” Griffin said. “I’m expecting a truckload today, and I had a customer call to ask if their order is on it. I’ve got to figure out how to find the tracking number. Some orders have to be done on the computer.”

Dan Griffin and his furniture store are right at home

California’s main power provider, Pacific Gas & Electric, shut off electricity to 1.5 million people in Northern California Wednesday and Thursday as a precautionary measure. Sparks from its lines were blamed for igniting deadly wildfires last year. High winds posed a risk of repeating that experience, the utility said.

Griffin said it wasn’t windy in Clearlake. “I live on the lake and would be the first to know,” he said.

He had a small generator in the store, which “worked for a while, then ran out of gas.” So did the local gas stations. He drove to Lower Lake, a small town nearby, where he found a station with gas and only about 20 vehicles in line ahead of him. With more fuel for the generator, “we’ll be able to get the front office going,” he said.

At the same time, he didn’t know how long he’d have to rely on the generator. Maybe another day or two – but the experience was frustrating for everyone.

Doing inventory with flashlights

“I wouldn’t say there’s panic in the streets,” he said, noting that some people were losing perishable food. “It’s tough for businesses. For those who want to stay open, it’s kind of difficult. Some are open, some are closed.

“It isn’t drastic for us,” he added. “We’ve done OK. We don’t rely as much on computers as some businesses. We’ve been doing some inventory with flashlights.”

Business was slower than normal for HFA member Rockridge Furniture & Design in Oakland, even though the lights stayed on.

“It’s such a distraction that it almost doesn’t matter,” owner John Knight said Friday, when 300,000 PG&E customers remained without power. “People are just not walking in. They’re mostly just walking by, looking at their phones.”

Distractions are bad for business

Areas as close as two blocks away did lose power, Knight said. Residents who were in the dark, or otherwise absorbed by the crisis, weren’t thinking about buying furniture.

“The news cycle just has to end,” he said.

Every major event seems to trigger similar reactions, Knight observed. Distractions are bad for business. So is worrying about where or when the lights will go out next.

“People have to be really secure to drop 10 grand or 20 grand on a room,” Knight said.

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