Darryl Sherman of Wilson's: Lessons from the pandemic
From the HGO Merchandiser
BRIGHTON, Ontario – COVID-19 has been a life altering event. This is now old news but almost everyone agrees it has contained a multitude of teachable moments. So, HGO approached eight influential independent furniture, mattress and appliance retailers and asked them to share what they’ve learned. They all seem to agree that either despite or because of it, this tragedy has made better human beings and better businesspeople.
Each week for the next four, one of these responses will be highlighted in this space. To read the entire report, check out the Spring 2021 edition of the HGO Merchandiser by clicking here.
I want to thank each of these energetic and thoughtful industry leaders for taking the time to consider the questions and respond fully. Aside from some minor editing to ensure clarity, their answers are presented as submitted.
Darryl Sherman, president
Wilson Furniture; Oshawa, Ontario
What have you learned from the pandemic, both as a businessperson and as a human being?
Personally, the transition from an active life of work, travel and social activity to one of self-isolation, a changing work environment with a different schedule and an end to social activity has occurred with mixed reactions.
Surprisingly, adjusting to changing work schedules and no travel have been easier than limiting social activity and contact. Cancelling major holiday get-togethers and family milestones has been more difficult for me. Lessons learned include increased need for shared communication using old and new technologies. I love to write letters and have continued to do so, although e-mails and messaging apps are much faster. Of course, Zoom and other new tools are useful for personal and business communications. However, I long for the personal contact. This includes family and business. Personal meetings with factory representatives and attending trade shows are part of my DNA and are definitely missed. We all used to complain about too many trade shows. Not anymore.
I am also grateful for family and friends. I am so lucky to have a good relationship with my wife Louise. Working with my brother and partner Jory, we have weathered the COVID-19 challenges with a united front and are confident our business will emerge strong and viable.
Finally, I am learning to pace myself. I have always worked six or seven days, then after a few months take a travel break. Not having that option, I am now working five days and taking two off. Also, our store has reduced hours, so my work-life balance has improved.
How has it changed your business, your approach to business and how you see its future?
During the first closure (back in March 2020), we analyzed all our expenses and made changes where possible to reduce them. We do this on an ongoing basis, but that closure expedited our need to conserve where possible. We also looked for opportunities to utilize available government grants and loans.
We also communicated often and clearly with our staff. As a small business this is essential. We tailored our staffing plan to meet their differing and changing needs. I am also aware long-term social isolation has an impact on everyone’s mental health and well-being. Continued attention to staff well-being is foremost on my mind.
When we re-opened in May 2020, we reduced our store hours (10am to 5pm) and closed two days a week (Tuesday and Wednesday). Private appointments were encouraged. Our staff accommodates customers by opening the store for them when we were closed or after hours. This has worked very well. Everyone has adjusted to this schedule, which we reactivated when we re-opened last month (February 2021).
In December 2019, I began a web site update which was initially completed in February 2020. As technology is changing quickly, we completely revamped our web site again in December 2020 and have spent the time and resources needed to make this site robust and user friendly. We are beginning to offer e-commerce options, online appointment booking, virtual tours and updated product in store. The future of marketing dollars will likely trend away from print and radio to social media and web marketing.
The shift from custom orders to in-stock items will be our biggest challenge as over 60% of our sales have been ‘special’ orders. We don’t import containers and with order times extending to six months, we are concerned our customers will opt for ‘in-stock’ items. So, we are continually revisiting categories to determine inventory levels. This will be our biggest challenge in 2021.
We believe the success of our business will rest on personal interactions with customers and providing a positive in-store shopping experience. With growing residential movement to our area, and the current home décor boom, we are anticipating strong sales as we recover sales decreases in 2019 (due to shutting of the local General Motors factory) and 2020 (thanks to the two-month closure this past spring and the closure after Christmas). We are already behind for 2021 due to the store closure and have our work ahead of us. We are optimistic that once we are past this pandemic, our customers will continue to make home furnishing a priority for the next several years.