Deemed essential businesses, hardware stores never closed their doors, and now they’re busier than ever.
“For instance: Mulch. I have sold, this spring, as much mulch [as] I have in five years combined,” said Mark Settergren, who owns the Linden Hills, Diamond Lake and 54th & Penn Ace Hardware locations. “Our hardware store has sold everything that we have in it.”
Bryant Hardware sold more seeds this year than ever before. Frattallone’s Ace Hardware in Stevens Square has never seen so many online orders.
“Everybody’s tired of watching Netflix, so they’ve started doing a few more projects,” said Guse Hardware manager Jason Menk.
Lawn and garden projects currently top the Minneapolis to-do lists, followed by painting. During the stay-at-home order, people found themselves staring at walls they had long been meaning to paint, said Erin Fenske, manager of Bryant Hardware.
“It’s an instant gratification,” said Elena Nelson, co-owner of Nicollet Ace Hardware.
Along with the run on cleaning products and toilet paper, sidewalk chalk immediately sold out in stores this spring. Grills and kiddie pools are selling fast. Nicollet Ace Hardware quickly sold all of their baby chicks, as parents brought chickens into the at-home curriculum.
“It’s just not business as normal,” Nelson said.
Hardware stores across the country are reporting record-setting sales, according to Dan Tratensek, executive vice president at the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA), who said sales are driven by cleaning products and protective equipment, home office supplies and extra DIY time at home.
“We always find that in times where there’s uncertainty in the economy, whether that’s a recession or something like this, a lot of people are not spending money going on big vacations, they’re not spending money right now in going to the movies or going out to dinner. The one place they see they can really spend that money, and see some kind of payback for it, is improving their homes,” Tratensek said.
While business is very busy, Nelson at Nicollet Ace Hardware said they are operating with fewer staff due to COVID-19, and the pandemic is affecting the shop in new ways. Rapid purchasing from all hardware stores has strained the amount of mulch, dirt and paint available. Even things like sandpaper can be harder to obtain, as can drill bits made in China. Operating without workers for a period of time, some growers have fewer plants to sell.
“We’re asking customers for patience on all fronts,” Nelson said.
As soil and mulch have become harder to keep in stock, Menk said one supplier has reduced the number of mulch varieties to help meet demand.
Settergren is seeing inventory stretched in lawn and garden materials ranging from raised beds to wheelbarrows.
“We cannot keep in stock that kind of product and now we’re finding out that the supply chain is — they only built so many,” Settergren said.
Supply chain challenges are evident across the industry, Tratensek said. COVID-19-related slowdowns in production overseas started the backlog, he said. And industry distributors, trying to forecast demand 90-180 days in advance, often underestimated.
“Understandably so, because I don’t think anybody would have predicted, if this was just an average year, that we would be seeing this kind of sales,” he said. “It really has been a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Now there are points in the supply chain that have seen two-week shutdowns or are operating with a smaller staff to maintain social distancing at the busiest time of the year.
“It’s more like a kink in the garden hose,” Tratensek said. “It might take another 30, 60 days to get back up to regular pace, but I’d imagine as all the additional challenges work themselves out, the hose will continue to un-kink and product will flow more freely to the retailers. … But if we see cases flare up again, then really who knows what could happen?”
The jump in demand is a particular challenge for hardware and grocery stores, which have predictable sales year after year, said Karthik Natarajan, assistant professor of Supply Chain and Operations at the Carlson School of Management.
“It’s hard to rewire supply chains on the fly,” he said.
Natarajan said most production in China is back at full capacity, but low-value merchandise made in China is typically transported by ships, rather than quickly airlifted at greater expense. When products arrive in the U.S., many ports and warehouses are operating with social distancing, loading fewer trucks per day and creating delays.
“If it was a high-value commodity which is manufactured in the U.S., these issues probably would be solved much faster,” he said.
He expects hardware store backlogs to resolve within a month or two as companies adapt.
Frattalone’s Ace Hardware at 2737 Hennepin Ave. reopened June 8 and is working to restock much of its inventory, which was lost or damaged during the demonstrations following George Floyd’s killing. Store manager Jake Granheim said he’s hopeful that insurance will cover the loss. When patrons offer to help, he suggests donating to others who need it more.
During the week of the protests, Nelson said Nicollet Ace Hardware didn’t receive new deliveries for a week because distributors didn’t want to visit Minneapolis. Her business partner spent several nights on the rooftop, shining a flashlight and yelling to scare off attempts to break into the business.
A few of the windows were broken at Bryant Hardware, but there was no major damage, Fenske said. Neighbors stood on the sidewalk for an hour to watch the business until staff arrived, and neighbors returned later to help clean up.
Hardware store owners have noticed a surge in support from local customers.
Fenske said Bryant Hardware typically serves maintenance workers at large apartment complexes, but after the stay-at-home order, neighborhood traffic jumped and has remained steady.
“We have more community business and local shoppers, which has been awesome,” she said.
Research by E.A. Langenfeld & Associates, a retail hardware consultant, shows that the Minneapolis area has seen a decrease in visits to major home improvement stores and an increase in visits to independent hardware stores. The firm speculates that areas of the country prioritizing knowledge of COVID-19 (as measured through web searches) are increasingly visiting independent hardware stores to avoid long lines, boost the local economy and head off difficulty with Amazon deliveries.
An NRHA survey found that 72% of independent hardware stores started offering curbside delivery, which they suggest may have helped business as well.
When the pandemic arrived in Minneapolis, Settergren’s stores stopped allowing customers to browse the interior sales floor, instead serving people at walkup counters. Running a fourth-generation business in operation since 1895, Settergren said it’s been fun to sell candy to kids through the walkup window.
“We really are that old-fashioned general store that has a little bit of everything,” he said.