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Consumers turn to home fix-it projects, boosting hardware store sales

Less time commuting is allowing people more time to work on home improvement projects, and such stores are reporting continued business if from a distance. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Working from home for weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic created an opportunity for Mary Elizabeth Primak.

Being at home gave her time to spruce up her family’s house in North Bellmore, said Primak, who is employed as the communications director for Glen Oaks Club, a golf course and country club, in Old Westbury. 

“Spring cleaning came early this year. … Why not now?  Why put things off?” said Primak, 30.

In March, she bought paint and other supplies from a Costello’s Ace Hardware store in Bellmore to paint the den and stain some furniture in the single-family home she shares with her husband and 11-year-old son.  Primak also ordered flower bulbs online from Holland Bulb Farms and planted them in the front yard, she said.

While many retailers and other businesses have been temporarily shuttered for weeks by state mandates because they were deemed nonessential during the health crisis, home improvement stores have been allowed to remain open. 

Primak is among a group of consumers — those who are working from home or not at all because of the pandemic — focusing on home projects now, which is helping home improvement retailers' sales grow, while other retail segments have declined over the past several weeks.

“Home improvement stores benefited in March from strong demand for paper and cleaning products, as well as other household essentials. Consumers are also diverting funds away from travel and entertainment to focus on spring home improvement projects,” said James Bohnaker, associate director and economist in the Boston office of IHS Markit, a market information service headquartered in London.

For many homebound consumers, the do-it-yourself projects also have served as a distraction from daily media reports of worrisome news about the pandemic, retail experts said.

At Costello’s Ace Hardware, in-store traffic is down, while curbside, online and phone orders are up, said Robert Feiler, executive vice president of sales and marketing for the chain.

The Deer Park-based retailer has 36 stores in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, including 23 on Long Island.

“Business is where it was (at this time last year).  It’s just a different type of business,” Feiler said.

Costello’s bestselling items now are paint, bird seed, fertilizer and household cleaning products, he said.

The chain has adapted its business by increasing its delivery and curbside pickup capacities, eliminating delivery fees and expanding the delivery radius, Feiler said.  The company is in the process of hiring 100 more employees to drive delivery vans and work in stores, he said.

In the United States, sales in various retail categories declined at unprecedented rates from February to March amid the pandemic, Bohnaker said.

For example, sales at food service and drinking places fell 26.5%, sales at auto dealers dropped 27.1%, and clothing & accessories stores sales were down 50.5%, said Bohnaker, based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

But sales at building and garden supply retailers (Home Depot, Lowe's, Ace Hardware, etc.) rose 1.3% to $33.4 billion. 

Food and beverage stores (grocers) had the biggest increase, 25.6%.

Product sourcing has been an issue for some home improvement retailers, said Grant Farnsworth, partner and director of strategy at The Farnsworth Group, an Indianapolis-based market research firm focused on the building and home improvement industry. 

“Some paint, lawn and garden and building product manufacturers we work with reported that last month’s sales were much higher than the prior year. ... With limited manufacturer labor coming to work due to the pandemic, some are having a hard time keeping up with the demand,” he said.

For home improvement retailers, the key to their success during this period is going to be their flexibility to respond to customers’ needs, he said.

“Are you making it easy and do you have the products available for online transactions?” he asked.

About two weeks ago, Trio Hardware in Plainview began offering curbside pickup for the first time, co-owner Todd Kirschner said.

“We’ve almost become like personal shoppers,” he said.

The most popular items right now are not the norm, he said.

Many shoppers are seeking supplies for their kids’ craft projects, as well as paper products and household cleaning supplies, Kirschner said.

“It’s helping us tread along,” he said.

Still, sales are down about 40% from where they were at this time last year, he said.

Brinkmann’s True Value Hardware, a Sayville-based chain with five stores in Suffolk County, is now getting 20% of its sales from curbside pickup of products ordered online, compared to almost all sales being made in the stores before the pandemic, said Ben Brinkmann, who co-owns the business with two siblings.

Business is holding pretty steady, except for the decline at a paint store in Jamesport that is geared mostly toward contractors, he said.

“I believe that the communities we serve are comforted by the fact that we’re here, we’re open. It’s somewhat of a normalcy.  … we know these people by their names,” he said.

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