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Washington Store Stays Flexible During Pandemic

Located 15 minutes from Seattle, Island Home Center & Lumber is busy serving a community that is near one of the early U.S. hot spots for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proximity to Seattle doesn’t mean Island Home Center’s community has been flooded with virus cases, but it does mean the store has grown in importance to local people.

The business on Vashon Island—a bedroom community for Seattle—has experienced a significant dip in its typical contractor sales, while consumer sales have grown. The operation supplies a diverse product mix, which includes building materials, horse feed and liquor.

Many island residents who would typically take a ferry to work in Seattle or to get groceries in the city are now working from home and shopping at their neighborhood stores more often. As a result, ferry traffic to and from Seattle has dropped 75 percent since COVID-19 began to spread in Washington.

“Our community is pretty tight-knit and all of them are staying home,” Earl Van Buskirk, owner of Island Home Center & Lumber, says. “They want curbside service and they come get the necessities to take care of emergency repairs and their animals. Our phones are ringing constantly to arrange for curbside pickup.”

An employee works behind a plastic shield at Island Home Center & Lumber in Vashon, Washington.

Van Buskirk has done everything he can to protect his employees and customers while continuing to serve the community. For safety, his team has implemented new cleaning routines, begun working behind plexiglass shields at service counters and started wearing masks and gloves.

His employees are staying busy at the store and adapting to the progressive changes the pandemic requires.

Van Buskirk emails his team twice a week, updating them on new policies and procedures because small changes—such as posting signs asking customers not to use the store restrooms, if possible—require prompt efforts.

“Everything is very fluid,” Van Buskirk says. “We have to be flexible and we’ve had to make it work.”

The staff encourages customers to use curbside pickup, credit card payments over the phone and emailed receipts.

“We’re trying to get to a touchless sale,” Van Buskirk says. “They pay over the phone. Then we ask them to stay in the car and we load the trunk or the back of the pickup truck.”

If employees have cold-like symptoms, then they stay home from work. Some of the outside sales staff can work from home, so they do. Employees who are over age 60 and afraid to work at the store are also staying home.

“I’m going to pay those people no matter what,” Van Buskirk says.

Increases in consumer sales aren’t compensating for the large quantities of building materials  Island Home Center currently isn’t selling to contractors. However, Van Buskirk applied for and received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, so he is confident he will be able to keep his full staff.

He reminds his team that their jobs matter not just to them, but also to the well-being of the people around them during the pandemic.

“I’m trying to encourage the employees that we are filling a need in the community,” Van Buskirk says. “We need to be flexible because even customers who come inside the store are under stress and want to go home and hunker down.”

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About Kate Klein

Kate is profiles editor for Hardware Retailing magazine. She reports on news and industry events and writes about retailers' unique contributions to the independent home improvement sector. She graduated from Cedarville University in her home state of Ohio, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English and minored in creative writing. She loves being an aunt, teaching writing to kids, running, reading, farm living and, as Walt Whitman says, traveling the open road, “healthy, free, the world before me.”

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