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7 Issues LBM Dealers Are Grappling With as They Respond to the Coronavirus

Amid the general talk about washing hands and keeping safe distances, you can see subtle differences in how construction supply companies are responding to the coronavirus pandemic, based on the roughly two dozen letters from dealers to customers and staff that I've seen.

Are Walk-ins Welcome? Generally, the more pro-oriented you are, the more likely it is that you've shut your doors or at least are discouraging people from coming in. Direct Millwork has eliminated customer pick-ups at the facility. Franklin Building Supply and Hamilton Building Supply have closed showrooms, while Shepley Wood Products Showroom is by appointment only. Hayward Lumber asks you not to enter a showroom, or any other part of its buildings, if you feel sick. You can't go inside a New South Construction Supply store now. Rather, when you arrive at the branch you must call inside and an employee will come out to load your vehicle.

Protecting Walk-in Customers? Other dealers have a much larger retail presence and thus can't close their doors, so they've responded in other ways. Ridgefield Supply noted it has put hand sanitizers at its paint and lumber counters. Frontier Building Supply no longer will require people to sign their names electronically when they make purchases, and New South Building Supply has dropped the same requirement of customers when its drivers make deliveries. TW Perry is cleaning its credit-card terminals and other countertop items at least hourly.

Operating Hours? Aside from a few showrooms, construction supply companies remain open. But several are closing earlier than normal. For instance, Hayward Lumber stores now are open only between 7 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday. Likewise, G.R. Mitchell announced today it has reduced hours. Its reason? "This adjustment to business hours will allow us to increase sanitizing efforts, particularly for high-touch surfaces in our store and building materials counter; will provide us extra time to pull and stage building material orders in advance of their necessary pick-up time allowing us to reduce face-to-face interactions; provide additional time for us to prepare contingency plans as our customers’ receipt processes change; and will also provide additional time for us to restock retail shelves"

PTO Policies? Numerous dealers have told their workers that taking time off because they feel ill won't be charged against their sick-leave or vacation allowances. TW Perry is giving an extra two weeks of administrative leave to any employee affected by the virus.

How Technological Are We? Virtually all dealers are urging customers to reach them by phone, email, text, or online link, but some with the means to go further are touting those options. SRS Distribution has pointed out to customers that they can place orders and pay bills through their Roof Hub service. Companies that employ outside credit and collections management firms like BillTrust and BlueTarp have in place a service to keep electronic payments coming.

What Gets Canceled/Delayed/Avoided? Mid-Cape Home Centers has postponed its 125th anniversary celebration, and scores of other contractor events have been scrubbed or delayed. Vendor visits are banned just about everywhere, plane flights are being canceled, and trips by OSRs to customers are shunned in favor of calls and emails. The usual challenge here is to decide how deep into the calendar these practices will continue.

How Do We Keep Customers Calm? Aside from declaring that they aren't seeing any problems now, most dealers can give only vague promises regarding product availability. "Luckily, we do not use toilet paper to build houses," Franklin Building Supply's Rick Lierz joked, while Kelly Fox of Frontier Building Supply borrowed a line from Jimmy Buffett: "If we knew where it all ended, we might just toss out the anchor," Fox wrote. "Because we do not know when it ends, we will continue operating in the best way we know how by making sure that we are taking care of our employees and our customers with every safeguard in place."

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