Here’s why your furniture business is essential

Home Furnishings Association members sell many products that are essential to customers’ daily lives and needs. That has never been more true than now when so many Americans must remain at home.

Yet, all businesses face a bewildering assortment of stay-at-home directives. While there are exceptions for “essential businesses,” definitions of that term vary from state to state and within some states. As a result, some furniture stores are closed, but some are still operating. In either case, it is important to explain to state and local leaders what essential products customers need for their homes.

HFA, with the American Home Furnishings Alliance, which represents manufacturers, offered the argument for essential status in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

[Appliances meet critical needs during crisis]

In a separate letter to policymakers, Kurt L. Darrow, chairman, president and CEO of HFA member La-Z-Boy Incorporated, also contends that furniture retail stores could be “included within the first wave of businesses allowed to reopen this month if they manage the number of individuals within the store at any time – which is an approach some states are taking now during the peak of the pandemic.”

The HFA-AHFA and La-Z-Boy letters are available to all HFA members, if they desire, to help frame a similar message to state and local leaders that when businesses are allowed to ramp back up, their store should be an essential part of that process. For HFA members whose stores are still operating at any level, these letters could be used to make the case for remaining open.

Here is the HFA-AHFA letter:

Dear _______

The health and safety of employees, customers and families is the top priority for the essential home furnishings industry. We appreciate your leadership to minimize the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of public health as well as the broader economic implications. We also greatly appreciate the work of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to provide uniform guidance to state and local governments through its March 19, 2020, and March 28, 2020, memorandums. However, the essential operations of the home furnishings industry are not clearly acknowledged in these memorandums. This has led to confusion within the industry and cease-and-desist orders in certain locales.

As a result, an advantage has inadvertently been created by acknowledging certain businesses as essential. Big box stores and online retailers remain open because they sell “essential” items such as over-the-counter medication, food, hardware and appliances. However, these retailers are not limited to selling products deemed essential. They are selling and shipping home furnishings nationwide while home furnishings retailers are left with uncertainty and dire business consequences.

Staying at home is essential to defeating COVID-19, and home furnishings are essential for staying at home.

  • With little to no warning, Americans have been directed to work from home. Many find themselves in ill-equipped spaces that hamper their productivity. Some companies may change their business model following the pandemic to enable employees to work partially or entirely from home on a permanent basis.
  • With little to no warning, many families are attempting to home-school children. Many households lack furnishings to create basic workspaces.
  • Assisted living facilities are sending elderly patients to their families as a precaution, leaving those families to search for beds, chairs and other necessary furnishings to provide proper care.
  • College students are home taking online classes. Many of these students also need the opportunity to furnish a basic workspace.
  • Families have more furnishings needs, both indoors and outdoors, as a result of the stay-at-home orders.
  • Enabling families to meet their home furnishings needs while confined to their homes will make them more inclined to follow stay-at-home orders for work and leisure activities.
  • Stress caused by stay-at-home orders, home-schooling children, job loss, economic uncertainty and separation from loved ones causes poor and inadequate sleep. Under the best circumstances, poor sleep leads to other health issues. Americans need the opportunity to improve their bedding, which can dramatically improve sleep quality, if they deem this necessary and beneficial.
  • Quality sleep also improves Americans’ ability to fight illness. Further, enhancements like power bases that allow the user to adjust their sleep surface are shown to lessen shortness of breath, help alleviate heart congestion and inflammation, increase blood flow and reduce snoring and sleep apnea.
  • In homes where someone has already become ill, there may be a need for mattress and pillow protectors – items sold by mattress specialty stores – to provide a safe and hygienic place to rest.

On behalf of the nearly 1.5 million home furnishings-related employees nationwide, we respectfully ask for your help to clearly acknowledge the essential nature of home furnishings retailers and the home furnishings supply chain necessary to meet product demand.

Home furnishings retailers are diligently investing considerable resources and effort into following CDC guidance to routinely clean and sanitize their facilities. All necessary steps will be taken to ensure a safe environment for both our employees and customers.

[Tell customers why it’s safe in your store]

Thank you for your attention to these concerns and for your ongoing leadership. We are ready to work with you to assist as you consider how to best safeguard our communities while serving their needs in this crisis.

Sincerely,

Here is the La-Z-Boy letter:

In a very short period, the coronavirus pandemic has darkened much of the United States’ economy. Unlike prior economic downturns, market forces are not driving it; rather, we are forcing a hard stop to much of American life.

Some industries have been particularly hard hit. For example, brick-and-mortar retailers of products deemed “non-essential” have been forced to close by various state-issued executive orders over the past few weeks. These orders are understandable – with the spread of the virus accelerating, states needed to take quick action to force social distancing while allowing critical elements of the economy to function. But there have been unintended consequences.

Because of the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” products, the hardships inflicted on businesses have not been equal – or intended. For example, in the furniture industry, big-box retailers like Walmart and Target have been allowed to sell furniture throughout the pandemic because they also sell other products such as medications, food and hardware. Similarly, e-commerce retailers, like Wayfair and Amazon, are continuing to sell and deliver furniture because they have deemed themselves part of the essential e-commerce infrastructure. Yet, brick-and-mortar furniture stores that provide service and value to our communities have been forced to close.

This approach – which unintentionally allowed some businesses to sell furniture, but not others – is threatening the viability of thousands of local furniture stores that employ hundreds of thousands of Americans.

At the very same time, this crisis is causing families to quarantine together, forcing people to work from home, while children study at home and college students finish semesters from home. Families are finding that they need furniture that will allow them to live and work comfortably and productively in their new home-bound realities. Some may find that they need specialized furniture, such as “lift chairs” that assist the elderly or infirm to be get in and out of chairs.

As a result, we believe that household furniture should be considered an essential product, and furniture retailers should be permitted to operate consistent with CDC guidelines. The goal of the closure orders was not to close businesses and stifle the economy. The goal was to slow the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the infection curve. Furniture retail stores can operate in such a way that employees and guests are less exposed to social contact than employees and guests in grocery stores, pharmacies, auto repair shops and other retail businesses that have been deemed “essential.” Therefore, the risk to allowing furniture retailers to be considered “essential businesses” to reopen and sell much-needed products is minimal. Alternatively, if furniture retailers cannot be deemed “essential” at this time for some reason, furniture retailers should be among the first businesses allowed to reopen in the first wave of easing of restrictions on non-essential businesses. Furniture stores can operate by appointment, allowing easy monitoring of the number of customers in the store (which is generally spread throughout the day anyway), which would be one way to allow furniture retailers to transition from closure orders to reopening fully at some point in the future.

Furniture retail stores could also be included within the first wave of businesses allowed to reopen this month if they manage the number of individuals within the store at any time – which is an approach some states are taking now during the peak of the pandemic. These retailers could easily be required to meet the following standards:

  • Health and safety protocols.
  • Hourly disinfecting protocols.
  • Hand sanitizer available to employees and guests to encourage hygiene.
  • Frequent cleaning of high-touch items like door handles, credit card terminals, computers/tablets, etc.
  • Temperature screening for team members.
  • Social distancing protocols and posting signage with protocols and reminders to employees and guests.
  • No-touching policy (no handshakes, hugs, or other close contact).
  • Limiting the number of guests allowed into the store based on the square footage of the establishment – for example: Stores with less than 7,500 square feet limit the number of customers in the store at one time to five; stores with more than 7,500 square feet but less than 25,000 square feet limit the number of customers in the store at one time to 10; stores with more than 25,000 square feet but less than 50,000 square feet limit the number of customers in the store at one time to 50; stores with more than 50,000 square feet but less than 75,000 square feet limit the number of customers in the store at one time to 75; stores with more than 75,000 square feet limit the number of customers in the store at one time to 100.

Throughout our country, the furniture industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans, providing products that are in high demand during this crisis, and pumping millions of dollars in employee paychecks, taxes and investments into our communities. These brick-and-mortar stores can be operated in a way that fully complies with all CDC guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Several states have already recognized this balanced and pragmatic approach. One of those states is Virginia. Executive Order No. 53 issued by Gov. Ralph Northam provides that any brick-and-mortar retail business not deemed “essential” can “continue to operate but must limit all in-person shopping to no more than 10 patrons per establishment. If any such business cannot adhere to the 10-patron limit with proper social distancing requirements, it must close.”

For the benefit of customers, employees and our economy, we request that furniture retailers either (1) be recognized as an essential product in the context of applicable executive order, or (2) be among the first wave of non-essential businesses allowed to reopen, due to the importance of their products and the clear ability to maintain social distancing and cleaning protocols. On behalf of the retail furniture industry, we thank you for your consideration and your time and attention during these challenging times.

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