• Clint Engel

Florida retailers escape serious damage from Irma

The hurricane knocks out power and shutters stores temporarily, but crews are safe

MIAMI — As a downgraded Irma moved further northwest Tuesday, Florida furniture retailers were counting their blessings: Their people were safe and damage to stores appeared to be minor.

But a lot of that counting was being done in the dark — or at least without power.

Millions of people in the state were without power early Tuesday, although utility companies were working quickly to bring that number down. In the furniture world, the Jacksonville-area Ashley HomeStore licensee reported that power was already back on and doors were open at its three Florida stores, although its showroom in Brunswick, Ga., remained closed. El Dorado Furniture, Rooms To Go, Badcock & more Home Furniture and Clive Daniel Home all reported power outages at most or all of their Florida stores.

But all were breathing a sigh of relief that their employees were safe — at least the ones they could reach — and that actual property damage was minor and mostly cosmetic. Two of the retailers contacted for this story had turned their distribution centers into temporary shelters for employees either looking for safety during the storm or in need of a roof over their heads in the aftermath.

“We’ve been trying to reach all of our employees,” said Pedro Capo, chief operating officer of Miami Gardens, Fla.-based El Dorado. The company had a hotline for employees to call, but it hasn’t worked as well as Capo said he would have liked. Aggravating that was poor service in the area from carrier T-Mobile, which Capo said had been down for days.

“Communications have been terrible,” he said. “AT&T hasn’t gone down, but everyone else is in limbo.”

Still, he was thankful everyone El Dorado has heard from so far was uninjured. All 15 stores have been closed since late Thursday, and only three had power early Tuesday. The damage appeared to be minor, he added — trees down and minor exteriors problems, such as damaged awnings, but “no flooding at all,” and the warehouse is intact, he said.

He added that it was too early to say when operations would be back in full swing, but he was among several of the retailers contacted, who praised utilities, such as Florida Power & Light, for “doing a great job.”

“For 48 hours it was hunker down, stay safe,” said Dan Lubner, president and CEO of Naples Fla.-based Clive Daniel Home. “And for the last 24 hours it was. 'What can we do to help? Who needs our help?' It’s been inspiring.”

Considering Naples was supposed to see a 15-foot storm surge that would likely have compromised its showroom there, “we are excellent,” Lubner said.

“We lost trees, and a couple of window blew in,” he said. “But the warehouses all held up.”

At the newest store in Boca Raton, the retailer lost air conditioning and electricity, but Lubner noted the store is “excellent new construction, so that held up — no water penetration.”

It could have been much worse, he said. With the anticipated storm surge in Naples, a team at Clive Daniel spent a day making arrangements for employee temporary housing on the East Coast of the state. It signed up team captains to keep tabs on all 207 employees and communicated with them non-stop as the storm was coming and going, he said.

The retailer had some employees ride out Irma in its 60,000-square-foot warehouse facility in Fort Myers, and, now that power has returned there, Clive Daniel will set it up as a shelter for anyone still in need, he said.

Lubner expects the Boca store will reopen within next few days and will be used simultaneously as a refreshing station, offering food and beverages to first responders working to clear debris and bring the power back on.

On Tuesday, Clive Daniel had trucks on the road, checking on employees and delivering food and water. As Lubner was reached Tuesday, he had just finished waiting in a long line for fuel and was on his way with a crew to help friend and competitor Norris Furniture clear a downed Royal Palm tree at its entrance, he said.

Its hospitality teams have done extensive work in the Florida Keys and Caribbean, and “We’re desperately waiting to hear how our friends fared and stand ready to help them,” Lubner said. Store designers who remained in town or were headed back were reaching out to their area clients, too.

And Lubner added he’s seeing the same kind of community spirit and help everywhere he turns.

“These situations expose true character,” he said. “I’m humbled to be on such an amazing team.”

Jeff Seaman, CEO of Seffner, Fla.-based Rooms To Go, said his company “got lucky.” All if its employees are OK, and the stores received very little damage despite all the glass fronts that were at risk. About 40 Florida store were affected by Irma, and most were s still without power Tuesday.

RTG also turned its distribution centers in Seffner and Lakeland, Fla., into shelters that filled up with at least “a few hundred” employees. That turned out to be a good move because a lot of them lived near the facilities, and Irma came storming up the middle of the state.

“We're trying to get up and going and coordinating our charitable efforts,” Seaman said. He estimated the stores in hard hit areas will probably start opening later this week.

The Ashley HomeStores in Jacksonville closed its doors on Thursday last week, and some of its last deliveries were beds for local news stations and shelters, said Howard Fineman, CEO of the four-store business.

“Overall, I’d say we felt very blessed,” he said. “All of our facilities are intact, and our team is safe, which was our biggest priority by far.

“The biggest loss is going to be the missed business for more than a week, but really we’re just happy everybody made it through safely.” Three of the company’s four-area stores were reopened Tuesday.

Before the storm hit, the retailer, which employs about 130 people, had set up communication chains and phone chains to keep track of everyone, Fineman said. For the most part, it let employees leave early last week to “to prep for their families, and it worked out for the better,” he said.

“From adversity comes strength and gratitude, and we feel that right now.”

Early on, Irma was expected to make its way up the east coast of Florida, and if that had happened, Jacksonville would not have experienced such a severe storm surge, he said.

“I was amaze at the size of this thing,” Fineman said. “We had close to Category 3 winds, and it was hundreds of miles away.”

He estimated about one-fourth of the company’s employees evacuated to other states and would be making their way back through the rest of this week.

Mulberry, Fla.-based Badcock was “feeling very blessed,” too, said President Rob Burnette.

“The eye of the storm came right over our main office compound,” an unexpected turn that left the facilities without power but only slightly damaged.

At the worst point, Badcock had 206 stores closed — throughout Florida and into neighboring states — a record number shut down for the company, he said.

“We had a number of stores receive some damage, but again, we’re feeling very fortunate it wasn’t a lot worse considering the scope of that storm,” he said. “We don’t have any stores lost altogether, although I’ve not heard from our Naples store yet. I’m a still concerned about that business.” (Burnette later learned the store escaped damage, though the dealer's home was destroyed.)

The company’s focus Tuesday was on getting crews together to take care of employees who might be dealing with fallen trees or are in need of help getting a tarp on their roofs.

“As far as I know, we have not lost any member of our family or customers,” Burnette said. “All the rest we can come back from.”

Clint EngelClint Engel | Senior Retail Editor, Furniture Today
cengel@furnituretoday.com

Please feel free to email or call me with all of your retail news and tips, including expansion news, successful merchandising and marketing strategies and anything else you would like to see covered by Furniture/Today.  Contact me directly at cengel@furnituretoday.com or 336-605-1129.

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