Big-item business booms on stimulus


News Photo by Julie Riddle
Customers Cliff Fisher and Judy Schmitdt, of Rogers City, try out recliners at Alpena Furniture and Flooring on Wednesday.

ALPENA — In a county of about 23,000 adults, over $27 million in federal stimulus money may have flowed into local homes in recent months.

Area businesses give evidence that many Northeast Michiganders decided to spend that money, a decision met with challenges caused by the very coronavirus pandemic that prompted the stimulus payments in the first place.

Economic impact payments, also known as stimulus checks, were sent to most American taxpayers this spring to bolster the economy during an unprecedented time of business closures and personal restrictions in place because of the pandemic.

Families could receive $1,200 per adult and $500 per qualifying child.

A snappy sales season at many local businesses gives one indication of what many Northeast Michiganders decided to do with their money.

News Photo by Julie Riddle
Business owner Kyle Leavesley supervises employees in the final stages of construction of a new home near Thunder Bay Junior High School recently. Customers are eager to hire contractors for construction and repair projects, Leavesley reported.

Being confined to their homes by order of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — part of a statewide effort to prevent the spread of the virus — put homeowners in the mood to fix up their living quarters, if the booming business in the construction industry is any indication.

Building supplies are selling briskly, even though materials costs are steep, an employee at Builders FirstSource in Alpena said.

The price of lumber has jumped 80% during the pandemic, with other materials following suit. Still, customers are eager to buy home-repair and building supplies, even as high demand makes product difficult for suppliers to obtain.

There’s a 6- to 8-week wait on some building materials — including Plexiglas, which was snatched up by businesses installing clear guards in front of cashiers and between workers.

It’s been tough to hire enough workers to keep up with customer demand, because many would-be employees would rather stay home and collect unemployment, Kyle Leavesley, owner of Leavesley Construction in Alpena, said.

Stimulus checks may have also led to an uptick in purchases of furniture and other large items. Alpena Furniture and Flooring has done brisk business this summer, selling more furniture than usual for this time of year.

Flip through the interactive timeline below to see how the coronavirus spread through Northeast Michigan. Story continues below the timeline.

Some customers told workers they were using their stimulus check to make the big-ticket-item purchase, a store employee said.

Swift sales have presented a challenge to the store, because customers are buying faster than the store can get product in — a problem replicated at Alpena’s Stanson Floor Covering and Furniture, where employees have to shuffle furniture to fill space on the sales floor in order to make up for the ordered product that hasn’t arrived yet.

Sales would be above a normal summer level if the store could keep furniture in stock, department manager Al Gapske said.

Coronavirus shutdowns worldwide earlier in 2020 are still impacting what shoppers can buy, even as many businesses have reopened. When production of raw materials stopped, everything they were used to make was stalled.

Stores will be fighting to keep merchandise in stock until raw materials are once again available in quantity, Gapske explained.

Even then, the items customers want to buy will be slow reaching stores until factory workers and truck drivers are able to return to work in full force.

The mattresses sold by the store are in particularly short supply, the raw materials used to make them diverted to provide personal protective equipment to essential workers.

“It’s trickled right down to the bare bones,” Gapske said of the far-reaching effect of the virus.

Auto dealers are seeing strong sales, as well, though it’s challenging to keep inventory on the lot, several dealers said.

While stores have been busy and sales brisk since stimulus checks reached consumers in spring, investment manager Phil Straley of Straley, Lamp and Kraenzlein of Alpena said one thing people are not doing with their stimulus payments is investing them.

His firm has seen no change in client investments, and he hasn’t encountered anyone saying they want to use their windfall to build up money for their future.

Then again, he added, the checks were intended to help people who have financial needs in the present.

For those who don’t need the stimulus money to pay the bills, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to simply put it in a savings account, Straley said.

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