Furniture stores fight for ‘essential’ equity – Home Furnishings Association

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Many furniture stores have struggled to gain recognition as essential businesses. Not Pedigo Furniture in Livingston, Texas.

“One of our saving graces is that we sell appliances, so we’ve been able to stay open,” co-owner Casey Evans said.

Freezers, refrigerators, washing machines and other household items necessary for good health and sanitation have been in demand during the weeks when Texans were following stay-at-home orders. Then sleep products were added to the list of essentials.

But Evans soon noticed that two big-box stores in town were selling other home furnishings products that Pedigo couldn’t.

Biltrite Furniture-Leather-Mattresses in Greenfield, Wis., faced the same inequity. Some retailers deemed “essential” were selling furniture, while Biltrite was closed.

Biltrite’s owners launched a campaign to convince state authorities that their business deserved the same essential status. And they took their case to the media.

Evans took another tack, turning to Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy for a “civil conversation.” In Texas, a county judge is the top local elected official.

Deep roots in the community

This was easy for Evans, whose family has deep roots in Livingston, an East Texas town of 5,000 people. Her grandparents, Joe and Gloria Pedigo, founded the furniture store in 1953, and Joe served as mayor from 1968 to 1985. Murphy admired Joe Pedigo, Evans said, and she and Murphy are friends.

Murphy agreed that Pedigo Furniture should be permitted to sell the same products as the big-box retailers, so customers can order furniture online or by phone and pick it up at the store. Essential items, including lift chairs and anything considered a medical necessity, can be purchased in the store and delivered to customers’ homes.

Not many orders have been placed through the website, but “the phone is blowing up,” Evans said.

“If we had not been corresponding with our county judge, we might not be in as good shape now,” she said, emphasizing the point that building strong relationships with local officials over many years can be very helpful during a crisis.

Safety is the first priority

Not that it’s business as usual. Delivery crews are outfitted with gloves and masks, and they deliver only essential products. The sales staff and warehouse employees work alternating schedules and never even see each other. Hand sanitizer is used everywhere. The first priority is keeping employees and customers safe, Evans said.

“We’re trying to make the best decisions we can with the information we have,” she said.

She’s not comfortable with lifting restrictions too quickly, believing that public health is more important than business right now. And, even beyond the current crisis, she think that every business will have to make it a greater priority to maintain a healthy environment.

“We’re all trying to get through this, and we may make some bad decisions and learn from them,” she said. “But we’re all in this together, and maybe we’ll make some good decisions, too.”

Biltrite battles with Wisconsin EDC

Biltrite’s Randi K – ownership family members use first name and initial –  has written tirelessly to officials at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to plead for fairness.

The point is not to oppose stay-at-home orders but to sell the same essential products that other stores can sell.

“It is all about health and wellness during a stay-at-home order. and many people are in need of lift chairs, recliners and mattresses during times like this,” Randi K wrote in one email. “We find it a disadvantage that our competitors, including furniture and big-box stores who happen to sell appliances and hardware, which are deemed essential, are allowed to be open for those items and CAN SELL furniture and mattresses in their stores when we are not allowed to. We would like to be fully open and welcoming customers.

Randi K

“That said, we are following … to the letter of the law … the guidelines that have been given to us by the state. What is unfair is that we are not playing on a level playing field. All stores should close that offer what we do, sell only essential items, OR the state should change that we are essential. How are liquor stores essential but we are not? We hope the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation rethinks what is essential and what is not.”

Making the case in the media

WEDC responded that furniture stores can only conduct limited operations “to sell medical lift chairs, hospital beds and other medical furniture.” However, “fulfilling non-essential deliveries” was allowed. And, beginning April 24, approved operations also “may include curbside pick-up of goods, if all of the operations are performed by one person in a room or confined space at a time, including a car or truck. Goods must be purchased online or by phone before pick-up. The goods must be prepackaged by the manufacturer, distributor or store.”

Randy’s mother, Gail K, was a guest on a Milwaukee talk radio program, “The Dan O’Donnell Show” on WISN, last week – and the Home Furnishings Association called in to support her. Biltrite has earned other media attention as well. And it is working to put together a coalition of independent furniture stores to combine their voices.

Miller’s Furniture shares the frustration

One of those other stores is Miller’s Furniture in Kewaskum, Wis.

“We support everything Biltrite is doing,” said President Cheryl Miller Peterson.

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Cheryl Peterson

Peterson closed her store more than a week before it was required but has kept her 11 employees on the payroll. They’ve done a limited amount of work. Peterson said being classified as non-essential has prevented Miller’s from serving an assisted living facility and a respite home for special-needs adults that it works with. While it can sell medically necessary products, that’s difficult when customers can’t try products for the right fit – which is helpful for customers purchasing adjustable beds or lift chairs.

It irritates her to see big-box retailers drawing many shoppers into their stores. Hers was rarely crowded. “We can easily give customers 12 feet of space!” she said, while taking all the precautions.

She also has been writing to elected officials to plead her case. One letter was modeled after a message drafted by the HFA.

Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order could remain in effect until deep into May. Miller’s Furniture has received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which will cover payroll and some other costs for eight weeks, and Peterson is absolutely certain the business will survive. It was founded in 1910, and she represents the fourth generation of family ownership. “We will definitely hang around,” she said.

Still, she would consider joining other furniture stores in a lawsuit contending that Wisconsin’s order is arbitrary and capricious in its treatment of different businesses. Randi K is already consulting a lawyer. So far, the state has not yielded.

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