Masks (such as these sewn by my sister) could become this week as common a sight as reflective vests at building material suppliers across the United States as we brace for even more death and illness from the coronavirus. Thousands of dealers nationwide have curbed their operations. Hundreds have seen construction banned in their state. A few have closed temporarily. Here are my recommendations for what you should add to your to-do lists this week.
1. Get creative to protect workers and customers
After I posted a picture last week showing how Hammond Lumber of Maine had built plexiglass dividers for its counter service, Parkes Lumber Co. of Tennessee did the same (see photo). Since then, I have since received requests from others for pictures so they can build identical guards. Have you done the same?
Meanwhile, one of my most popular social media posts last week was of the drive-thru windows that Arrowhead Building Supply, headquartered in the St. Louis area, has installed in its buildings whenever it remodeled them (photo). You probably don't want to tear down a wall to put in a drive-thru window, but perhaps you do have a door in the back. What's the possibility of replacing it with a dutch door, opening the top half, and serve people without them leaving their trucks?
No doubt other dealers also are finding creative ways to promote social distancing. Please send other neat ideas you've implemented to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Help your customers and government officials understand that you and they can operate despite shelter-in-place orders Even though construction has been banned in a few states, I have yet to come across a single state or local government that has ordered building material dealers to close. However, I'm hearing reports that in at least one state--Michigan, where construction workers were ordered to put down their tools--police have stopped trucks as they were taking materials to a jobsite. Dealers like Chelsea Lumber decided to shut temporarily. Others are trying to get the state government to understand dealers' rights.
Meanwhile, remodelers have faced particular challenges regarding whether they are allowed to work on a project. And when immigrant labor is involved, there's the extra concern that comes from provisions in the stay-home order that let police stop people driving across a state line, even if that driving is for a legitimate reason--like going to work.
You've always been counted on to understand the nuances of operating in your market. This is the time for you to become familiar with your state or local government's stay-home orders. Here is my summary of what's happening nationwide, with links to each state's orders.
3. Expect supply chain hiccups
American Shipper, a news agency that tracks maritime, rail, and truck traffic, reported a tripling in cancellations of container-ship sailings last week. "Demand from cargo buyers in the U.S. and Europe is collapsing at an alarming pace," it reported April 1. "Containers already delivered to import terminals are piling up." All this points to potential slowdowns in overseas shipments of building products.
And even if the goods never arrive by boat, there are other problems. NATSO, an organization that represents truck stops and travel plazas, has complained to state and local officials that occupancy limits they have imposed on retail establishments have turned what normally might be a 20-minute stop for a trucker into a two-hour ordeal. “It is crucial that [drivers] have quick and easy access to fuel, food, restrooms, showers and other services so they can get back on the road in a timely manner,” John Pertchik, CEO of TravelCenters of America, told the FreightWaves news service.
4. Look seriously at the CARES Act's Payroll Protection Plan ... and expect more help soon
While technically it's a loan, the Paycheck Protection Program is about as close to a free handout as you could ever hope to get from Washington. The typical small dealer can get enough money to cover 2-1/2 months of employee salaries and not have to pay any of that back if everyone stays on the payroll. Plus, there's potential extra help for utility and mortgage bills.
It is true that the program stumbled out of the gate when it launched April 3, and it will take banks a while to sort through the process. But if you use a community bank that already works with the Small Business Administration, and if you already have some sort of credit arrangement with that bank, odds are you'll have fewer problems getting your loan processed than will other, often bigger dealers.
Even as you take advantage of this stimulus program as well as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan initiative, keep an eye on news reports about what Congress will do next. The thinking early last week was that the House and Senate would work next on an infrastructure bill. But those plans were shelved after the Labor Department reported April 2 that 6.6 million Americans had filed for unemployment insurance in the previous week. Now the talk on Capitol Hill is of yet another economic rescue package.
5. If you're a home center, look at what Walmart just did--and was ordered to do
Walmart announced April 3 that it was reducing the number of people allowed into its stores by about 20% of its usual capacity. It also is creating separate entrances and exits, as well as mandating all traffic within an aisle go in one direction. Those practices might also work at your operation if you serve lots of retail and remodeling customers.
And consider the alternative: The state of Vermont last week ordered all big-box stores within its borders to shut down all aisles containing goods previously deemed non-essential. Thus, Target and Walmart can keep their groceries open but will have to close their clothing, sporting goods and home goods sections, among others. If you're a home center in a state that has taken notice of what Vermont did, it's conceivable your store might have to operate under the same restrictions.