During the pandemic, Allison Valtri, who has been an interior designer for more than 20 years, was forced to restructure the way she worked with clients — which taught her valuable lessons that will change her business going forward.
“Two years ago I would have told you that functioning virtually was not something that was possible in my field,” said Valtri, president of Allison Valtri Interiors in Avalon. “Now, in the atmosphere we are forced to work in, I’m finding there are opportunities to do things better than we did before, and I’m welcoming the changes I was so hesitant to make.”
The desire for home design and improvement has remained strong during the pandemic. According to HomeAdvisor, Americans on average spent $8,305 on home improvement projects in 2020, up from $7,560 in 2019.
“When you look at the whole industry, the pandemic has been a boom time for design and furnishings because people are so focused on it,” said Ida McCausland, president of the International Furnishings and Design Association (IFDA) based in Media.
Meeting that demand was difficult for businesses, many of whom were physically shut down between March and June 2020. While some businesses were forced to close, others found creative ways to work with clients, and, like Valtri, plan to continue using many of the new processes they created.
Virtual meetings and private appointments
To keep salespeople and customers safe, virtual meetings became commonplace during the pandemic. For Valtri, that meant losing the time she typically spent in a client’s home, getting to know the space, but also the family’s needs for things like hospitality, privacy and game nights. That information helped guide furniture placement, lighting, and decor.
“A virtual meeting always seems to have a time limit, so hearing family stories has now been sacrificed for decision-making agendas,” Valtri said. “Working virtually, I have to ask pointed questions and get videos and photos of family events e-mailed.”
Virtual meetings were especially challenging in the design industry, where things like taking measurements, seeing true colors, and sitting on furniture to gauge comfort, were important. Private appointments filled that gap.
“By appointment really blossomed,” said Paul Sperling, owner of Colonial Wallcoverings in Queen Village. Though many of his suppliers sent out free wallpaper samples, most of his customers were willing to come into the store to shop. He preferred that because they could look through his huge collection of sample books.
“Virtually, it’s really hard to tell what an actual color looks like,” he said. “There are so many colors in the universe. Say somebody wanted a lime green, and it came out to a bluish green. It’s that minute in wallpaper.”
The pandemic taught Sperling that working with customers by appointment was good for business, a new protocol he plans to continue.
Among furniture retailers in the United States, 69% reported plans to increase their focus on e-commerce in response to the pandemic, according to Statista, a market and consumer data provider. Yet furniture is an especially difficult product to sell virtually.
“The reason why we do have showrooms is that furniture is very personal — you need to sit in it and try it out,” said Andrea Braverman, manager of Host, a home furnishing store with locations in Chestnut Hill and Ardmore. “So for us, it’s not sustainable virtually.”
Host created a hybrid approach during the shutdown in which they would have virtual meetings with clients to make presentations and recommendations, and then mail or drop off samples, with the expectation that the client would come into the store once restrictions were lifted. Then customers could actually try out the furniture.
“Everything we do in furnishings is custom, so it’s hard to sell a sofa or a chair online,” she said. “E-commerce is not a huge part of our business, but we did add it, so it’s available if somebody wants to buy something small or a floor sample. We will definitely keep that going.”
Navigating supply chain challenges
To address delays in supply chain, production and transit, companies have had to adjust their processes and prepare customers to expect long wait times for goods and services. For example, the Philadelphia Woodworking Co. relies on solid woods, hardwoods and plywood for its custom cabinetry and furniture, but those products are tough to get.
“That supply chain has been a challenge for everybody,” said Matt Smolens, owner of the company, which is in Germantown. “Things are taking a long time to get to us, and things are out of stock that I would never have dreamed wouldn’t be available, like maple plywood, which is the foundation of a bookcase or kitchen project. And the price is double what it was a year ago.”
In the past he would order goods as needed but now must order them as early in the process as possible. He tries to keep some extra supply in reserve, but without a lot of extra warehouse space, he can store only so much. The costs of delays and higher prices must be passed on the customers.
“We’ll try to keep 20 sheets of this and that in stock, so if there is a delay, we’ll go to the reserve we wouldn’t have had in the past,” he said.
Contractors and retailers are being forthright about the delays. Host lets customers know that an 18- to 24-week delivery schedule is realistic.
“Demand is really high — this is one of our busiest years ever,” Braverman said. “Most of our clients have been patient about it because the furniture is meant to be a lifetime investment.”
Navigating staff shortages
Avalon Flooring, with 17 locations throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware and a pre-pandemic staff of 365 employees, has been hard hit by staff shortages. The company, headquartered in Cherry Hill, is down to 325 employees and busier than ever, said Maryanne Adams, president and CEO. The HR department is working furiously to try to fill those positions.
“People are coming in for an interview, and they already have two or three offers,” Adams said. “There just aren’t enough people to get the work done, and that’s a real struggle for everyone.”
The volume of business is keeping their salesforce mostly intact, but warehouse and administrative positions have been difficult to fill. The company is offering employees overtime, “but people get tired,” she said. “You can only do that so long.”
To add incentives for potential employees, Avalon has increased starting salaries and touts its benefit package, which includes an employee stock ownership plan and a 401(k) plan.
For now, the employee shortage is causing delays in getting product to customers. A one- or two-day pre-pandemic turnaround is now about five days. But Adams is counting her blessings.
“We are lucky to be a company that has weathered the storm,” she said.
With manufacturing delays in furniture, appliances and more, vendors and homeowners have learned to be creative with products that are available. That might include reusable materials, or locally made goods. For example, creating slip covers instead of buying a new couch, or having a local craftsperson design a built-in unit in place of ordering a new desk, dresser or vanity.
“Reupholstering, reimagining and reconfiguring furniture allows for a short lead time and adds to the green effect, in that we’re not putting anything into a landfill but are reusing and repurposing what we have,” said IFDA’s McCausland.
Added Valtri: “This is a time for us to step up to the challenge and navigate the way to do business where we do something that’s even better than we had expected it to be.”
The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.