Businesses address COVID social distancing in different ways
By Bruce Corcoran
While many local merchants have once again opened their doors to the public, some are being a bit more cautious with the uncertainty of COVID-19 lingering.
As the province lessened restrictions on what businesses could be open recently, many local stores reopened, but with requirements on social distancing, limiting the number of people allowed in a the store at any given time and, for some, encouraged use of face masks.
Other local business owners have remained closed to the public altogether, or open by appointment only, or to online or phone-in customers only.
At the north end of Chatham, Caldwell’s Brand Source, an appliance, barbecue, bedding and furniture store, is open by appointment only. This, after being effectively closed for the first six weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were kind of here for six weeks, but we were mostly closed,” Ed Caldwell, the owner, said. “We’d meet if a customer was waiting for a fridge, for example, and load him up.”
More recently, the St. Clair Street store is open to customers who book ahead, helping to limit the number of people in the store at any given time.
“At first, we just kind of maintained the business. The past couple of weeks, we’ve changed. You could feel the shift,” Caldwell said.
It’s working for the family business. Caldwell said they have turned away people who showed up at the door just wanting to look around.
“They come up to the door without an appointment. I’m sure we’re losing some business by not being fully open,” he said. “But people who make appointments usually buy. And older folks appreciate the social distancing. With only Janine and Bruce (two of Caldwell’s adult children) in the store, they are more comfortable.”
Being family owned, the store is more flexible in Caldwell’s eyes. He sees the big box store running differently.
“But we’re a pretty lean machine. We don’t have 10 staff to pay, or drivers,” he said.
Meanwhile in Blenheim, Sarah Evans, owner of Antiquated Joys in the heart of the South Kent community, said her door has remained locked.
Yet she is very busy nonetheless.
Evans said sales are down about 16 per cent compared to this time last year, and hand-delivering each sale creates about four times the work.
“I’m happily doing it, but it doesn’t leave a lot of spare time for anything else,” she said. “I know our amazing community wants the opportunity to shop local, and we are trying to make that a joyful experience.”
Evans said she receives shipments at home throughout the day and stays out of the Blenheim downtown until after dinner, at which time she’ll head to the store with any new shipments, arduously unpack each item and post them to her website.
From there, she morphs into a personal shopping assistant, collecting the day’s purchases.
“No lie, I am literally running up and down like I’m on The Price is Right. Too fun,” she said.
Parcels are wrapped up and deliveries then take place via two routes, one north of Highway 401 and one south of it.
“We elected to take an unconventional approach delivering the orders in the evening, as the streets were quieter, and therefore safer. And with a partner working from home through the day, this allows us the two cars on the road we require in order to reach all of Chatham-Kent,” Evans said.
By staying away from Blenheim’s downtown during the day, she believes it gives better access for “the people who do need to be there, whether for the bank, to get the mail, or for the businesses that are open.”
Evans said during the pandemic, thinking “outside of normal” has worked for her and her business.
“I think it’s apparent to our clientele that their happiness and safety are of the highest concern for us. I’m so very grateful to have had the opportunity to help bring some joy to isolation celebrations, gift-wrapping and delivering gifts with messages from the sender,” she said. “A huge part of our success is also knowing our clientele well, and being able to offer advice with regard to their purchases, which sometimes means reaching out after a purchase with ‘I’m not sure that pillow will work for you” and refunding the purchase after a dialogue. Customer satisfaction is paramount, and we are blessed with customers who share their satisfaction on the social, and that could not be more appreciated.”
Back in Chatham, Caldwell said the social distancing is taking its toll on him personally.
“Being born and raised here, you know a lot of people. I miss the interaction,” he said. “Normally by this time (of the year) we’d have had people over, been places. It’s crazy. But it will be worth it when it is over. I’m just glad we’ve survived it…so far.”