Even when some states allowed the company to remain open, HFA member La-Z-Boy Incorporated dutifully closed all of its stores nationwide last month as the coronavirus spread and COVID-19 cases began to spike.
La-Z-Boy Vice President and General Counsel Steve Krull said his company’s decision was a no-brainer: “We wanted to be part of the solution to flattening this virus and not part of the problem.”
In the same breath, however, Krull said he wants La-Z-Boy — with its 340 La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries stores and 560 Comfort Studio locations — to be part of the solution to the nation’s economic recovery, too. That’s why earlier this month, President and CEO Kurt L. Darrow sent a letter to Washington policymakers arguing that furniture retail stores should 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.”
In an HFA webinar on April 10, Krull sat down with HFA Executive Vice President Mark Schumacher and more than 300 retailers listening to discuss La-Z-Boy’s position and what other retailers can do when states begin allowing some stores to reopen — possibly as early as next week, though more likely next month.
Krull said as company officials read the various executive orders handed down from states ordering its citizens to stay at home and most businesses to close, a common thread emerged. “What we found was both states and local governments — especially in Georgia and Ohio — did not want companies to shut down if they could operate in a way that was safe to employees and their customers,” he said.
Like every other retailer stuck in this frozen economy, La-Z-Boy’s motives also have to do with its own economic viability. In addition to its stores, the company has shut down its manufacturing plants and distribution centers and furloughed 70 percent of its employees. “This is not a situation we can sustain for many months,” said Krull. But he added that, unlike big-box stores, smaller furniture stores can find a happy medium of respecting public safety guidelines while still offering customers much-needed services. Darrow’s letter asks that furniture stores be among the first wave of businesses allowed to reopen whenever individual states begin rolling back restrictions.
“We’re trying to educate our leaders on two things,” said Krull. “We want our leaders to recognize the importance of furniture, especially in this environment. We use the example of a health care worker coming home after a long day at work. He or she needs their rest and comfort before heading out again. They don’t have the furniture to do it. We talk about lift chairs and how they are much needed by the elderly. Second, we want to help (policymakers) understand that smaller brick-and-mortar retail stores can be operated in a way that’s extremely safe, such as flow of traffic or sanitation that big boxes simply cannot meet.”
Krull said many local public health leaders have been receptive to Darrow’s letter, and he encourages HFA members to share it with their local leaders. “They’re very receptive to retailers being open,” he said. “I think a lot of them want to strike a balance between public health and helping the economy. We’re telling them we can do that.”
Krull said La-Z-Boy’s goal of being among the first to reopen is based on two criteria: Is the company comfortable that, should its stores be allowed to reopen, they can ensure the health and safety of their employees and customers? And, is there a demand for the stores to reopen? “If those happen, if it makes good business sense, we’re going to start opening stores as quickly as we can,” said Krull. He said the earliest that could happen would be April 20 though he acknowledged “even that seems a bit aggressive.”
Retailers were invited to ask Krull questions about La-Z-Boy’s strategy. Here are Krull’s responses (note: some are edited for clarity and brevity):
Q: I have concerns about liability with employees coming back in the middle of a pandemic. Is that an issue for La-Z-Boy, too?
A: One thing this crisis doesn’t t change is the legal system, and you’re already seeing a lot of plaintiffs’ lawyers in action. I guarantee as we are talking about how to work productively and safely, some lawyers are talking about how to take advantage of the situation. Will there be lawsuits? I already know of one with a Walmart employee. My guess is when that case is being analyzed, the questions they’ll be asking are, did they inform their employees of best practices? Did they deploy best practices? And ultimately did that company behave responsibly? Did they act in any way that was negligent?
The best thing we can all do to help our companies is to take this very seriously. We’re going to have online training for our employees before they come back to work. We’re going to have daily debriefs with employees. We’re looking at other companies already in the middle of this, like grocery stores and how they are handling this. All of this is not a guarantee you won’t be sued if they get sick, of course. The key is to be abundantly cautious. Once you’re aware of an issue, act upon it. If someone says they aren’t feeling well, send them home right way time to be cautious, err on the side of health and safety. That’s the best protection we can have from a liability standpoint. It doesn’t reduce the risk to zero, though.
Q: What are things we should do to let the public know we are trying to minimize their risks?
A: Do things that are visible. Have signs up. On day one, our employees will likely be wearing masks. So demonstrate when someone walks into the store that it feels different, that you aren’t ignoring the situation. It should look and feel safe. Let them know through your actions that you understand the risk and you are taking steps to manage it. Maybe even put up a sign that’s apologetic. Something that tells them they may not get the levels of service they’ve come to expect in past years but that their safety comes first. So, you might have a smaller staff just to manage with the social distancing. Maybe just a manager and a floor person. It’s going to feel very different when you walk into one of our stores. I picture it as sitting in the exit row of an airplane. The flight attendant says you’re sitting in a very special place and there are some requirements we’re going to impose on you even though you’re a customer. They’re going to know we’re serious, and if they are not willing to abide by those rules, we’re going to ask them to leave. That kind of awareness and experience is going to reinforce to your customers how important you are taking this issue.
Q: When people interact with furniture, there’s always the potential of exposing others to germs or the virus. Are there some best practices to do at that level of interaction?
A: Those protocols are being developed right now in our stores. Sanitizer you can obviously use on furniture. We’re looking at things like, when you’re taking a demo car for a test drive, there’s that paper on the floorboard. Is there something you can use that’s disposable so someone can sit on a sofa or recliner? That’s something we’re going to have to do. Obviously, there’s going to be limitations on the customer experience as well, but safety, reassurance first. We’ll have hand sanitizers, too. The customers will appreciate it. There’s going to be no handshaking. We’re not going to handle credit cards, the counter is going to have some sort of shield up. We may be wrong, but we don’t think that’s going to offend customers who have been in their homes for two months waiting to get out.
Q: How do you mesh the guidelines with delivery employees who are working in a whole other environment?
A: We use dedicated delivery companies. We’ve communicated with them what their best practices will be. We’re giving customers the option to deliver on the front porch or in the garage. We told them that guys can’t wash their hands and sanitize them in the truck. It needs to be visible. Customers need to see them do it. Also, acknowledge to the customer that you’re going to ask them to stay six feet away. Show them you’re putting on slip covers on your feet, you’re wearing a mask and gloves.
Q: Are you thinking this way with supplies, too?
A: We’re a large company, so we’re kind of fortunate. We’re already focused on this. Sanitizers are a hot commodity. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You need to be working on getting those bottles now. It’s going to be difficult to find enough that you can put on your shelves. The real challenge is if you wait until you get the green light to your store and then you start looking, they are just not going to be available. If you asked me to predict what restrictions would be in place on stores that are among the first to reopen provided you do the following things, it’s unfathomable to me that you could open without sanitizers.