With landscapers getting back out in the field, the demand for supplies should continue to rise over the next few months.
Beth Weiland with Liberty Landscape Supply says they have one location in Fernandina Beach and two in Jacksonville, Florida, and while foot traffic might have slowed a bit due to COVID-19, that doesn’t mean business stopped.
Carl Atwell, president and owner of Gempler’s, says they’ve been able to continue operations due to the customer base they support. While their brick and mortar location is in Wisconsin, Gempler’s is predominately an online and catalog-based business, which means they are still able to sell and send supplies nationwide.
Since the start of the growing season, Atwell says sales have been going very well.
“We’ve been fortunate,” says Atwell. “We’ve probably also benefited from the fact that we sell some safety products, some personal protection equipment (PPE), as well as just everything else that people outdoors need.”
To help ensure the safety of customers and employees, Weiland says they have installed a plexiglass shield at their front counter, as well as clearly marking the floors with tape to indicate that customers should remain six feet apart. Weiland adds that they are also cleaning the counters, doors and equipment on an hourly basis.
“We also have online sales that we’re trying to push people towards rather than coming in the store,” says Weiland. “People can order online, and we can either deliver it or they can come here pick it up, so they don’t even have to get out of their cars.”
Since the outbreak of the virus, Weiland says online sales have risen, especially in their most recent Jacksonville location.
As a whole, Weiland says customers have been faithful, and to help them out, Liberty has been offering a $10 online delivery fee, as opposed to their normal $30 fee.
Weiland says customers are still coming in to get typical flowering shrubs and other plants that are normally purchased during this time of the year; the only big difference she’s noticed is that more people are purchasing edibles.
“I think people are looking for a lot of edibles right now,” says Weiland. “I haven’t really seen a difference in what kind of products people are looking for except for edibles. People are asking for that now more than they were before, and I think growing your own food is definitely something interesting, especially with everything going on in the grocery stores.”
Since Liberty was deemed essential since the start of the virus, Weiland says employees have been extremely thankful for the ability to work.
“We’re just taking it day by day,” says Weiland. “Right now, we’re remaining open, but even in a couple of days, that could change. I’m just feeling fortunate to still have a paycheck coming in and I feel like I want to come in as much as I can in case we do have to shut down. I think everybody here kind of feels the same way.”
At the start of the pandemic, Atwell says Gempler’s sent all of their office staff to work remotely from home, but the distribution staff was still needed to ensure products were prepared, packaged and shipped out.
“We had to get the call center remote within a 24-hour period, and we were able to do that without missing a beat, which was a super fortunate thing,” says Atwell.
To keep distribution center employees safe, Atwell says they have implemented social distancing policies, more detailed cleanliness measures, are requiring employees to wear gloves and are becoming stricter about sickness policies.
“We have a work ethic here where people just don’t tend to miss work,” says Atwell. “We’ve had to have a lot of talks with our team about how this isn’t the time for that kind of work ethic if you’re a little bit sick. Or if you’ve been around sick people, you just cannot come to work because we have to keep each other safe, too.”
As a small bright side to COVID-19, Atwell does admit that culturally, the virus has been a good thing for his team, despite the pandemic and the crisis surrounding it. Overall, he believes it has brought them all a lot closer together because they’ve had to rally together as a team.
When this first started in March, Atwell says there were numerous workers who came to him imploring him not to close. While he said he couldn’t promise it because no one knew what was going to happen from day-to-day, he did say as long as the customers needed their products, they would do all they could to provide them.
“There’s just been a spirit of togetherness and a spirit of wanting to help that I think has been present across the country, but it’s cool when you see it in your own company, too,” says Atwell.
Atwell admits they have had a few issues on both the outbound and inbound side of the supply chain during this time. Typically, Atwell says they have a very low return rate for products, but over the past month, they’ve had a fair number of packages returned. This, he says, is due to shipping companies not being able to deliver to businesses that are closed due to the virus.
“That creates a really screwed up situation because you’ve paid the freight for the stuff to go out and now it’s come back, and the customer still wants it, so you send it back out,” says Atwell. “And then you wonder if the business is going to accept it, or if you’re going to have to send it to a home address. That’d be all simple, well and good if you were only sending out 10 packages, but we sent out about 15,000 packages that month.”
On the receiving side, Atwell says some businesses are no longer letting their trucks come into the facilities unless workers have masks on.
So far, Weiland says they haven’t had to make any financial cuts, but they have cut back on restocking a few items that would be deemed non-essential during this time.
Overall, Weiland says business seems to be moving along at a steady pace, and as long as customers are enjoying the great outdoors, she believes it will stay that way.
“I think that getting out in the yard is kind of therapeutic anyways, and I think that now, even more, some people are stuck at home,” says Weiland. “They can’t go shopping, they can’t do other leisure activities, so getting outside is kind of an outlet for them. Everybody’s just trying to do something and kind of stay sane, and I think there’s no better way of doing that than by getting outside and beautifying your yard.”
Atwell says Gempler’s has a few promotions running that allow customers to get a percentage off purchases, as well as a free shipping program for $59 annually. This allows customers to get free shipping on their orders for the entire year.
Atwell says he’s not sure what the next few weeks and months will look like from a business or financial standpoint because things change so quickly. For the time being, Atwell says Gempler’s will have to put it together in a best case/worst case scenario and watch things unfold day by day.
“The number one reason we want to stay open is to keep serving customers,” says Atwell. “People need what we have, and we need to get it to them. The more philosophical answer is that I’m so happy and fortunate to be working 12 hours a day, six days a week because I wouldn’t want to be sitting at home watching the news. Work, for me, is always a way to take my mind off of things.”