Retail in a Time of Covid-19. A First Person Account

Kevin Sawler

Published: 04/30/2020 10:10:30 AM EST in Industry

Retail in a Time of Covid-19. A First Person Account



The Day the Doors Closed

My name is Kevin Sawler. I own and operate a consumer electronics retail shop called Glubes AVU, located on the main street in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Glubes is Nova Scotia's oldest and we are humbled to also be known as one of the most respected audio video and custom installation specialist in the Maritimes. We have been serving audio video enthusiasts for over 35 years and we have been the trusted choice for many of the finest homes in the Maritimes since 1980.

Glubes has a sizeable retail footprint, but in addition to our retail operations, we have evolved our business where we also specialize in the design and installation of home theater systems, as well as multi-room audio and automation systems, for both residential and commercial applications. These days, it is not uncommon for us to be working with our client's architect or even interior designer where we are choosing fabric and seating selections in addition to audio/video components, electrical, lighting, security, surveillance, and even window shading.

While every business has room for growth and improvement, I must say, I am extremely proud of our position in the community, the enthusiasm and professionalism of our team and the year-over-year growth we have managed to accomplish over a number of decades.

But then, on March 12, 2020 the unthinkable happened. All non-essential businesses in Canada were forced to close down operations that allowed access by the general public. If you served a customer in a physical location whether it be a gym, restaurant, a sporting stadium, essentially any location where customers could congregate, you were expected to close. What follows are some of the steps and thoughts that commenced on that life-altering day and what we have done not only to keep our business, but to strengthen our position for the future.

The very first thing that we did was not to panic nor make any quick decisions. After 35 years in business where we have experienced recessions, terrorist attacks such as 9-11 and so on, the biggest take away is not to panic. Within the first few days of the stop work order commencing, we decided to take a measured response and not shut down our operations or lay off staff. We quickly transferred software tools to remote locations so our inside sales staff could be set up in home offices, while management and a single staff member remained onsite. If customers could not physically access our shop, that didn't mean we couldn't continue to sell to customers albeit, in different ways such as home delivery or curbside pickup.

Since retail operations had now switched to online and telephone orders, we directed our buying group partner, Audio Video Unlimited, to enhance our website and social media presence. This resulted in a significant upturn in ‘order taking', curbside pickup, and home drop off. Glubes is a member of a national buying group called Audio Video Unlimited (AVU). Once this crisis happened, AVU's entire management team became very proactive, offering regular online webinars, dealer support, and strategic planning meetings that were open to all members. The AVU team have been instrumental in providing leadership and support during the Covid-19 crisis. Interestingly, when times are great, many would question why be in a buying group rather than go it alone as a strong independent retailer? I have found being part of a buying group in good times to be a prudent business decision and now in bad times it has been a great decision. There is strength in numbers.

Within the first week of lockdown we embarked on creating a Strategic Operations Plan. By that, I mean a detailed plan of operations involving all aspects of sales, installation, staffing and most importantly safety protocols. We developed our plan as a team and the greatest accomplishment from doing such as plan is there are no surprises or ambiguity on what is expected or how we are moving forward as an organization.

When talking to colleagues and suppliers, there is a mutual agreement that the biggest anxiety for all of us is of course the uncertainty of not knowing how long our business would be at a stand-still. Would it be days, months or the unthinkable, years? We did know that China had been in lockdown for over five weeks so we made a judgement that Canada would probably be locked down for a similar timeframe. With our retail space closed, we decided to embark on a plan to update our showroom facilities. To date our retail boardroom has been stripped and updated and we have completely refreshed our showroom for a new look and feel. Anyone in retail will tell you it is close to impossible to remodel a showroom of an ongoing business. Usually it means a night shift. With no customers in the shop, we found this to be an opportune time to remodel and we feel excited to show off a new look upon our eventual reopening.

Of course, the best of intentions in a plan of no layoffs has to be reassessed based on revenue and work required. To this end, we prepared staff for the possibility of layoffs. Government assistance programs were presented to all staff members and any staff member wishing to not work during the Covid-19 crisis was offered employment when normal operations recommenced. We have also applied for all government assistance programs as they have been unveiled. We have taken advantage of qualifying programs assisting us with payroll, rent and operational expenses.

The area of operations has been the most challenging for our business has been our communication with our suppliers. Many suppliers, in my estimation, may have reacted (even over-reacted) very quickly in terms of laying off staff, closing operations or even slowing their own purchasing, warehousing and communication with their supply-chain management. Such reaction has left many retailers scrambling to create a purchasing strategy that aligns with limited operations. Additionally, many suppliers did not have a strategic plan in place to secure orders and inventory to their clients in anticipation of an eventual reopening. This issue was compounded by some major product introductions by key video suppliers, coupled with little internal inventory by these suppliers. Such supply chain issues are still working themselves out. The strong suppliers will be perfectly positioned with good on-hand inventory while the poorer ones will be witnessing a lost opportunity due to poor planning. You will know who the good ones are by what we are selling when operations come back to normal.

Like all businesses, maintaining liquidity and cash flow have been a going concern. Management initiatives moved quickly toward receivables collection. Additionally, all future A/R billing was suspended and with payables, some of our proactive suppliers were approached with proposals to increase our payment terms. This met with some success and the dialogue of money coming in and money going out is ongoing.

One of the biggest takeaways from our "new reality" and I cannot stress it enough, was to not panic. Both federal and provincial governments have had to adapt, alter, change and even rethink policy and strategy day-to-day, as the health of our citizens are being monitored. A decision you make on Monday may not even make sense by Wednesday so remaining calm and providing time to digest information is tantamount to surviving a crisis. We have been very lucky that our custom installation operation was deemed an essential service. We have been very fortunate to have a significant number of commercial and custom jobs in our queue that were also non-residential. That means we have been able to continue operations with our CI staff members that allowed operations to continue in these areas. This too is a lesson in diversification. Had all of our eggs been in a retail basket, our story may not have been so lucky.

In the way a generation before us will reflect on how World War II was their defining moment, Covid-19 could well be the defining moment of our generation. We of course long to get back to normal but how we define normal may be drastically different in the future. We certainly know there will be changes to our operations moving forward. For one we will be implementing a policy of controlled access, meaning we will enhance our Control 4 system in our store with front door cameras and intercom stations so all staff will have to ability to see and speak to a client at our front door and to ultimately remotely grant access to our showroom. We will limit the number of clients in the store to two people or single families, when children are in tow.

This pandemic has given time for reflection and dialogue on what is important in life. Family time being one of the biggest takeaways for me. To that end, we will be altering our retail hours so our showroom will be available between Monday and Friday from 9am -5 pm and closed on Saturday and Sunday. Naturally there will be appointment only weekend opportunities, but as a guideline the days of retail devouring your every waking hour may be a thing of the past.

As I write this, we have been in lockdown or some form of social isolation for close to six weeks. Signs are creeping in that economic restrictions may become more relaxed, but as we know, that could change tomorrow. Take comfort that you are not experiencing this crisis alone and while there are uncertainties and economic hardships aplenty, this time way also prove to be one of the best gifts, not only in preparing your business for the long term but also for personal growth and reflection on what's important in life. We are truly in this together. Stay safe!

Kevin Sawler
Glubes AVU
100 Main St.
Dartmouth, N.S.


Article Tags:  Glubes, Kevin Sawler, AVU, Covid-19, Maritimes, Nova Scotia, Business, Audio Video


Retail in a Time of Covid-19. A First Person Account

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