• Powell Slaughter

Having a plan is first line of storm defense

HIGH POINT — Fresh off Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in South Texas, furniture retailers are dealing with Hurricane Irma, which is tracking through Florida before it heads farther inland.

Storms such as these change course day by day, but retailers aren’t stinting on getting ready to ride it out if they get a direct hit from the storm, which is expected to be a Category 4 event when it makes landfall.

At Tamarac, Fla.-based City Furniture, the best defenses are planning and preparation. Most of City’s locations are fairly new and are built to the latest hurricane-hardiness standards, and its main distribution center is equipped with a generator to keep power on in case of outages.

“We’ve made huge investments to make sure our facilities are hurricane-ready, and that also helps with insurance,” said President Keith Koenig. The company also has a director of safety and many detailed processes in place to help mitigate the impact of major storms from a first, safety, then operational and customer service point of view.

As Hurricane Irma was approaching Florida and Rooms To Go was getting ready to close stores in the state, CEO Jeff Seaman said its pre- hurricane preparations are fairly limited.

Before the storm, its efforts are focused largely on helping employees connect to others who can help with them with evacuation efforts when needed. Other than closing stores in advance of the storm, there’s not much to do to protect property, he said, noting how RTG’s stores have huge glass fronts, so it’s partly a matter hoping for the best.

Safety first

Employee safety is paramount in Norris Furniture & Interiors’ Irma preparations. Larry Norris, president of the retailer with stores in Fort Myers, Naples, Sarasota and Sanibel Island, spoke on the phone from North Carolina, where he came up in advance of High Point Premarket. He’s been on the phone multiple times a day with store management.

“We have 115 employees we have to worry about,” he said. “We’ll close at some point so they can go home and take care of their families. It depends on which way the storm goes.”

The same is true at City Furniture.

“Safety of our people is first, safety of our company is first, and safety of our customers is first,” said Koenig. “We’ve been through this before, and it has to be managed like anything else.”

After the storm passes, there’s flexibility for employees whose homes may have suffered damage or who have trouble getting to work.

When contacted on Tuesday, Koenig was preparing for a meeting to discuss Irma with management. “We’ll have daily meetings and even meetings more frequently if the hurricane gets closer.”

Hudson’s Furniture operates 17 Central Florida stores, with its southernmost in Sarasota on the Gulf and Melbourne on the Atlantic. Due to the unpredictability of Irma’s path, it’s pretty much “business as usual” for now, but the retailer is ready and will be flexible in accommodating for the storm.

“There’s a lot of anxiety with our customer base and our employee base, and we’ve been proactive in our communications, letting them know we’re there for them,” said Josh Hudson, president of the Sanford, Fla.-based chain. “Rest assured that everyone’s safety is our top concern, and we’ll send updates as new information about the storm’s path becomes known.”

Battening down

Hudson’s has some locations that have been prone to flooding, so that’s the retailer’s largest concern about Irma’s impact on the physical plant if heavy rains hit.

“We know we’ll deal with some flooding issues in that case,” Hudson said. “We also could expect some wind damage to signage.”

Even if Irma tracks over his market, Norris doesn’t expect too much water damage since none of his stores are on flood plains.

“We’re trying to secure our properties as well as possible,” he said. “We’re bringing anything loose on the outside into the stores.”

And while he hopes not to use it, Norris Furniture & Interiors does have business interruption insurance.

City has different procedures in place specific to hurricane watches or hurricane warnings.

“It all depends on how the storm tracks,” Koenig said, noting that a storm’s impact “can vary across our entire market. If Irma goes south across the Keys, it could end up a non-event in Stuart.

“We have our email list and numbers for calling in or text so our employees know whether we’re open. We also have places we’ll post our opening hours like television stations.”

Business impact

Looking at Irma’s track last week, Koenig expected slow business as the storm approached.

“If the hurricane keeps heading this way, I can tell you that Wednesday will be slower than today, and Thursday will be slower than Wednesday,” he said. “When a storm is coming, people aren’t shopping for furniture; they’re going to Home Depot.”

The priority at Norris is making sure employees and their families are prepared.

“I don’t imagine many people are looking to buy furniture at this point,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of deliveries postponed until after the storm.”

“Really, post-hurricane is where all the hard work starts,” Rooms to Go’s Seaman said.

In Texas, RTG has eight Houston stores and one in Corpus Christi that were in Hurricane Harvey’s path. However, the retailer was “extremely lucky,” he said. None of the stores was damaged, and even with 1,000 employees in Houston alone, nobody on the team was hurt, although some lost property.

“Having lived through Andrew and Katrina, there’s just so much devastation, and the needs are so great” after a disaster, he said. RTG’s first step has been to help affected employees first and then the communities deeply impacted.

Usually, furniture stores such as RTG help in two ways, Seaman said. They give money immediately to the relief agencies with the best understanding of immediate needs and then follow up for weeks and months later by giving away furniture as efficiently as possible, starting with bedding and then other home furnishings.

After Katrina, RTG gave away thousands of rooms of furniture, “and we’re going to do the same thing in Texas,” Seaman said. The retailer doesn’t do it directly but through reputable charities that are best connected to displaced flood victims and other in need. In Louisiana, after Katrina in 2005, the retailer worked through organizations such as the Salvation Army, the Furniture Bank and many others.

Also, severe storms such as Harvey and Katrina lead to a huge increase in demand, “and that has its issues, because you have to be prepared for it,” Seaman said.

A lesson from Harvey

Harvey left the Houston area as a tropical storm, but the region faces a long road to recovery. Plano, Texas-based retailer At Home has seven Houston-area stores affected by Harvey, and its preparations minimized that storm’s impact on operations.

“We had all of our stores prepared to be watertight,” said Chairman, President and CEO Lee Bird during a conference call last week discussing second-quarter results. “We actually had facilities and store leaders actually close the stores, put everything in place in front of the doors and anywhere else where water could come in. They put in multiple layers of corrugated boxes and so on just to absorb any water that would come in.”

Making the stores watertight resulted in minimal damage to buildings and product. As a result, At Home reopened store operations in Houston within a week of the storm.

“So I’m just grateful for our team’s efforts,” Bird said. “I think that shows you the excellence that our team can perform in times of distress.”

At Home also brought in personnel from outside the Houston area so that employees there could focus on themselves and their families.

Having a plan

By Wednesday of last week, Badcock Home Furniture & more was in “full hurricane mode,” said Rob Burnette, president of the Mulberry, Fla.-based Top 100 company.

“We’re in the hurricane state, so we’ve got a protocol,” he said. “We have mobile generators on standby that we can shoot out to any store that gets impacted.”

That’s just one part of the preparation. In addition, Badcock has a series of what it calls a “store in the box,” basic store technology equipment package prepared in the IT department of its Mulberry, corporate office.

“If a store loses power and the storm damages all the equipment, we’ll have a generator there, we’ll have a store in the box there, we’ll have the computers there,” Burnette said. “We can ship all of it immediately” to help a dealer or corporate store get back on track quickly.

To protect its Mulberry buildings, Badcock makes sure it has plenty of plywood and sandbags on hand and makes sure all debris is picked up around the compound just as consumer would do to protect the home.

In preparing for Irma, the more than 330-store retailer also had a tractor trailer of bottled water on route from one of its other distribution centers.

“First priority will be our employees, because right now you can’t buy water here,” Burnette said. “I haven’t been able to buy any for the last two days.”

Should the storm spare the area of damage, and assuming area grocers can catch up on their supplies, Badcock will ship whatever water remains to the relief areas most in need, he added.

“We have never had to evacuate here,” Burnette said. “We’re far enough inland. We can sustain significant damage, but it’s typically not evacuation level in the central part of Florida.

Badcock, he said, is much more at risk of losing a distribution center or office building to a tornado, and that can happen anytime. In those cases, the company follows its standard business continuity plan and emails employees to remind them of the protocol, including the number to call to find out if the business is open or closed and emphasizing “family safety first.”

As of midweek last week, Badcock remained opened for business as usual. Burnette said the company and its dealers will close stores on a store-by-store basis based on the developing forecasts for Irma.

Senior Retail Editor Clint Engel contributed to this report.

Powell SlaughterPowell Slaughter | Senior Editor
PSlaughter@furnituretoday.com

I'm Powell Slaughter, senior editor at Furniture/Today. I returned to the publication in January 2015 after nine years of writing about furniture retail strategies and best practices at a monthly magazine focusing on home furnishings retail operations. Prior to that, I spent 10 years with F/T covering wood furniture, the last five of those as case goods editor. While I cover occasional, home entertainment and home office here, a major responsibility is expanding our attention to the logistics side of the industry. I hope my articles will encourage a dialogue with retailers, vendors, third-party logistics specialists and carriers. I’d love to hear your ideas, concerns and suggestions for smoother flow of material and goods.

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