HIGH POINT — As the impact of the coronavirus continues to tear through the U.S., retailers are reconciling a new hit to their bottom line: the cost of remaining openly safely.
From personal protective equipment purchases for both employees and customers to the cost of employee COVID-19 testing, totals are beginning to add up.
“It has been a big investment, but we think it’s worth it,” said Preston Matthews, president of Brown Squirrel Furniture. “It’s just the cost of doing business at this point.”
And the cost is not just impacting furniture retailers. In quarterly reports, brands such as Walmart reported putting more than $3 billion into higher salaries, benefits and COVID-19 safety measures. T-Mobile recently reported spending $50 million on safety gear and extra cleaning, and in a blog post, Amazon outlined ways in which it planned to spend more than $800 million on employee bonus pay, safety protocols and safety equipment.
Spending has gotten so high for retailers across the board that the National Retail Federation has begun advocating for legislation in the Senate and House that would create a new tax credit to ease the cost of steps taken to make stores and other workplaces safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
“To create a healthy workplace during this pandemic, retailers have had to retrofit their structures and purchase new fixtures to accomplish social distancing,” wrote NRF Senior Vice President for Government Relations David French in a letter. “In some cases, they have also had to invest in new ventilation and air filtration systems. On an ongoing basis, they are investing in PPE, testing and cleaning.”
Short term, long term
At Brown Squirrel Furniture, a single-store retailer based on of Knoxville, Tenn., Matthews estimated that the store is spending and will continue to spend between $4,500-$5,000 a month outfitting its 90,000 square foot showroom and 184,000 square foot distribution center.
“For us the price of safety has both short-term and long-term costs to be considered,” said
Matthews. “In the short term, we had to create safe shopping environment for both employees and our guests.”
That started while the store was shut down at the onset of the pandemic when Brown Squirrel Furniture’s showroom and distribution center was given a complete, hospital-grade sanitation by the retailer’s cleaning service before its May 1 re-opening. Following that, Matthews chose to up the store’s cleaning schedule, bringing in the same outside service to clean the store’s hotspots — which include bathrooms, countertops, computers, phones, door handles as well as the furniture — twice a day.
In between, store employees were asked to start cleaning areas of the store themselves whenever there is activity in the area. To help with that process, contactless hand dryers, soap dispensers and trash cans were also installed in the store’s restrooms to help keep surfaces germ free between cleans.
“Having the cleaners in more often and having them work with hospital sanitation chemicals costs us about $3,000 a month,” Matthews said. “Which is obviously much more expensive than our regular cleaning but makes everyone feel safer.”
Similar steps are being taken at Biltrite Furniture in Greenfield, Wis., according to Randi Schachter, a fourth-generation member of the family-owned retailer.
“We’ve always had a cleaning staff on board,” she said. “But as with everything else we’re doing to be safe, we just took it to the next step with extra bathroom cleanings, new types of cleaning and just more cleanings in general.”
Both retailers have also made significant investments in PPE purchases for both its employees and customers.
At Biltrite, the company has spent several thousands of dollars on keeping its store open and safe with complimentary masks (for its customers, who are asked to wear a mask, and employees, who are all required to wear a mask), plastic cough guards over its desk and reception areas, and disposable mattress covers, sourced from a medical supplies website, for customers to use when testing mattresses and other pieces of furniture.
Additionally, the store has amped up its hand sanitizer and cleaning purchases, although Schachter noted that hand sanitizing stations were already part of the retailer’s showroom.
“As soon as we closed down for the mandatory shutdown, we were all getting ready for re-opening safely,” she said. “My mom was researching where to buy safety supplies that were in stock; we were rearranging the store for social distancing and updating the website. We never stopped, and everyday has been like a Saturday in our store since reopening.”
At Brown Squirrel Furniture, purchasing disposable surgical masks for customers and employees who need one and N95 masks for have been one of the company’s biggest focuses.
Required since the store returned to regular operations, masks were at first quite expensive, costing the retailer $1 to $10 each, as supply was scarce. Now, disposable masks cost around 40 cents or less and slightly more expensive N95 masks, for warehouse employees, are easily purchased, bringing the store’s monthly spend on masks to just about $500.
Other investments for the retailer have included purchasing things like acrylic cough guards for desks, six $150 fever monitors for employees, and building several new hand-sanitizing stations at the beginning of re-opening. More recently, the retailer also purchased Ionopure sanitizer sprayers to be installed in the entrance of the store and also around the counters in the office to continuously disinfect the space.
Monthly, refilling the sprayers and hand sanitizer is costing the retailer more than $200, and initially the company also spent several hundred dollars to get the store outfitted with stations and sprayers.
Worth the cost
Sweet Dreams Mattress & Furniture has made similar investments during the pandemic — purchasing extra cleaning supplies, masks gloves and personal mattress protectors — to keep customers and employees safe at its four retail locations.
“Sourcing some things like cleaning supplies was definitely more difficult in the beginning, but we relied on our partners, and they were able to keep us stocked,” said Katy Law, co-owner of Sweet Dreams.
The company, which remained opened as an essential business at all of its North Carolina-based locations throughout state-mandated shutdowns, had trouble at first finding masks, regular access to hand sanitizer and more. But the retailer utilized its existing industry connections to land on solid ground.
Nationwide Marketing Group helped the member company find reputable cleaning and hand sanitizer sources; Tempur Sealy International became a source for disposable mattress shields for customers to use; and Bedgear continued to provide the retailer with disposable pillow protectors. At one point, the store even purchased gloves from upholstery resource Leather Italia.
“Customers have been thanking us for being careful, and they seem glad to know that we’re really taking steps to keep them safe,” noted Law.
It’s a sentiment that is being reflected at many retailers, like HOM Furniture, which recently navigated two store openings during the pandemic.
“Customers always appreciate seeing the places that they shop to show care,” noted Kyle Johansen, executive director of merchandising for HOM Furniture Brands. “We’ve heard the comments over and over again.”
And it has become a pivotal selling point for retailers, with businesses adding COVID-19 safety information and practices to their websites, social media and advertising campaigns, just like any traditional store upgrade might be.
In stores, social distancing guidelines and information about safety practices and requirements are being printed out and posted throughout stores.
“People are literally leaving reviews saying that they feel safe shopping here or telling us that they’re here because we’re taking all the precautions,” said Schachter. “This whole thing has been a really good way to show customers just how dedicated we are and also stay open. And that’s worth spending the money on, and that’s worth talking about for any retailer.”