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When the Upper Valley shuts down, business picks up for some retailers

  • Chris Wilson, of West Newbury, Vt., moves plants at E.C Browns' Nursery in Thetford, Vt., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Wilson has worked at the nursery for 35 years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Connor Brown asks about a price when ringing up Sukie Azar, of North Pomfret, Vt. on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, at E.C Browns' Nursery. Brown's family owns the nursery in Thetford Center, Vt. Business this year has been good due to more people working at home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Margaret Darrow, of Vershire, Vt., shops for plants on Tuesday, June 23, 2020, at E.C. Browns' Nursery in Thetford Center, Vt. Darrow said she has done more gardening this year, including more edging and mulching. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rhianne Poirier, of Bethel, Vt., prices new plant arrivals at E.C Browns' Nursery in Thetford Center, Vt., on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. The nursery has had a busy season this year. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 6/27/2020 9:18:53 PM
Modified: 6/27/2020 9:18:51 PM

The economy is in deep recession, unemployment is at its highest level since the Great Depression — yet business has never been better for some retailers.

Although much of the nation’s economy has been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic and millions of people remain out of work, some businesses that cater to plain corners of the consumer market are seeing record volumes of customers.

Hardware stores, gardening supply centers, plant nurseries, vendors of play sets, storage sheds and chicken coops, and baking ingredients company King Arthur Flour are all having a banner year even as airlines, restaurants and many retail shops are struggling to stay afloat.

“Sales have been up. I’m not comfortable saying how much, but I am honestly embarrassed,” said Robin Dow-Parker, owner of the Canaan Hardware & Supply, an independent hardware and garden supply store in Canaan.

“It’s been crazy. In the 19 years I’ve been here I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Lee Ann Lyman, store manager of Woodstock Ace Home & Hardware in Woodstock. “It’s, like, where are they coming from?”

Although supermarkets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) farms, as well as retail giants Amazon and Walmart, have all reported strong sales as people have loaded up their pantries and bought basic necessities online, businesses that cater to at-home needs have also fared better than normal.

“When everyone started staying home in response to COVID, people started baking and baking in record numbers and at levels that far exceeded what we see at the peak times at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Ralph Carlton, co-CEO of Norwich-based King Arthur Flour. “It created this instantaneous demand for flour and baking supplies.”

Carlton said that flour sales in April were up “triple digits,” which required the company to find new packagers of its flour to keep pace with customer demand. Although sales have come down since then, Carlton said they are still elevated and currently running “about double” where they would normally be this time of year.

“It’s a lot,” he said.

Business owners say the current economic upheaval created by COVID-19, however, is different from the so-called Great Recession of 2007-09, when unemployment eventually reached 10%. Unlike that recession, in which the federal government focused its rescue efforts on bailing out banks and automakers, this time the government acted swiftly to enhance unemployment benefits to furloughed workers and provide forgivable loans to businesses of all sizes.

That has meant cash directly in the hands of consumers — in many cases with the benefits exceeding their regular income — which, combined with idle hands while out of work, is motivating homeowners to spend money on projects around the house and on home-centered activities with the family.

Indeed, the stimulus money people received was a “huge help” in bringing retail customers into home improvement stores, said Larry Huot, owner of LaValley Building Supply, whose 11 locations include West Lebanon, Newport and Claremont.

Only about 35% of sales at LaValley are going to consumers, Huot said, with the other 65% to contractors in the building trades.

But while permitting for new home building has slowed during the pandemic, sales of lumber, hardware, building and gardening supplies have all been higher.

“The challenge became in having the staff to meet the demands of customers who realized they had the time” to work on DIY projects at home, Huot said.

And if you want one of those outdoor play structures for your kids, you’re going to have to wait.

“We’re telling people six to eight weeks for swing sets,” said Rob Therrien, owner of The Carriage Shed in White River Junction, which sells Amish-made gardening sheds, chicken coops and play structures. “As quick as they come in, they go right back out.”

He’s sold more than a dozen chicken coops over the past two months and “we got two left and another six on order,” he said. “People are sitting at home thinking about how to be more self-sufficient.”

Based on sales since March “at the end of the year I may be saying, ‘Wow, we are actually doing better’ ” than last year, Therrien said. “It’s a positive direction to be going in.”

Another result from people being stuck at home is a huge swelling interest in gardening, according to nursery and garden center staff.

“I’ve been here since 1995 and I don’t ever remember a year like this,” said Niña Klinck, nursery manager at E.C. Brown’s Nursery in Thetford Center. “It’s been insane.”

Klinck observed that “people are either starting a garden or improving their home, doing the things they never had time for.”

She ticked off a list of plants and supplies that are now either sold out or down to their last pallet.

“We’ve had to resupply the blueberries four times. Can’t get elderberries. Rhubarb’s done. Only five raspberries left and raspberry season doesn’t even start for another couple of weeks,” she said.

“You can’t get compost, either. We’re not getting any more until September. You can’t make compost faster,” Klinck said.

Gardener’s Supply in Lebanon was open for curbside-only pickup until May 18 when it reopened to on-site customers.

Given that COVID-19 hit in the run-up to the spring planting season, “losing a day of sales in May is like losing a month of sales any other time of the year,” said Pat Pearsall, general manager of Gardener’s Supply’s four stores in the Twin States and Massachusetts. “But since we’ve reopened sales have been very strong, there’s been a pent-up demand from people who weren’t going out and buying things.”

Moreover, Pearsall said, with many parents not at work and home-schooling their kids, families have been looking for activities to do together — and starting a garden is a “wholesome activity” that gets everyone outdoors and off their laptops and smartphones. Seeds and vegetable starters have been particularly sought-after, he said.

Another factor driving vegetable plant sales: “People want food security,” Pearsall said.

Canaan Hardware & Supply’s Dow-Parker said her 13 employees have been stretched thin between answering phones and taking orders from customers. She’s watched the evolving transition in what homeowners are buying: The first weeks it was cleaning supplies, then it shifted to interior paint, and then it was gardening equipment and supplies.

Like Woodstock Ace Hardware, Canaan Hardware & Supply has a strong customer base from people with seasonal homes, and both Dow-Parker and Lyman said sales in part have been driven by out-of-state residents who have come to their second homes around Woodstock and Mascoma Lake.

Dow-Parker said she is grateful to the community for supporting family-owned businesses such as hers during the pandemic.

“Customers have been really respectful of our safety,” she said.

But based on the demand for hardware and gardening supplies, not just at her store but others over the past couple months, she has come to a conclusion:

“There are going to be some really nice homes in the Upper Valley,” she said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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