Curbside shopping easier than expected


MARTIN’S HARDWARE EMPLOYEE Katie Wilch loads items into a customer’s car this past weekend. Martin’s and other businesses that are considered “essential” during the coronavirus pandemic are restricted to providing delivery or curbside pickup service. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

A CUSTOMER COMMUNICATES by phone with the employees of Martin’s Hardware in Bristol last week. Martin’s is open for business, but customers by state law are not allowed to enter the building during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead they place orders online or by phone, and then arrange delivery or pickup. Independent photo/Steve James
We’re basically personal shoppers. — Kathleen Clark

MIDDLEBURY — Like many of our neighbors in Addison County this time of year, my family has a number of home-improvement and gardening projects we’re itching to get started on.

But during the coronavirus pandemic getting the supplies you need is a little less straightforward than usual.

Gov. Phil Scott ordered the closure of all in-person business operations in Vermont, with a few exceptions.

As of this writing, hardware stores in Vermont are included among the businesses and entities providing services or functions deemed “critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security” — and as such are allowed to continue conducting retail business as long as they do so over the phone or online and process orders for delivery or curb-side pickup.

But what does this mean, really? And how does it work?

Last weekend I called Martin’s Hardware & Building Supply in Middlebury to find out.

Martin’s is not the only hardware store open in Addison County, but I had to choose one and so they are the one profiled in this story. I’m sure other ones would provide a similar experience.

ORDERING

Lindsay Fifield picked up the phone at Martin’s.

“The first question we ask is ‘Do you want to pick up your items or have them delivered?’” she said.

Martin’s Middlebury and Bristol locations offer free delivery within three miles of each respective store. Outside that range, a $10 fee applies.

Our house is close enough to the Middlebury store for free delivery, but because it was a beautiful sunny day and I hadn’t driven anywhere in like a week, I decided I would do pickup.

The things I needed were pretty simple to communicate over the phone, but if I had needed additional help, Martin’s offers to videoconference with its customers, so that they can see the actual items inside the store before they make their decisions.

I ordered some 2x6s and some posts, garden fabric and hardware cloth and a few items for an interior trim project. 

It went pretty much the same way it would go as if you were standing there at the register. You have a list of stuff you want, in the dimensions you think you need it in, and then you come away with the mix of dimensions that the store actually has in stock at that moment.

In other words, it was totally fine.

Then I asked for some topsoil.

“Regular or premium?” Fifield asked.

I had no idea what she was talking about. 

My wife is the gardener, but my wife wasn’t there to consult with. So, seeing as how the premium was only a few dimes more expensive than the regular, I went with the premium.

The total, after applying my TrueValue rewards card, came to $130.21, and I read my credit card information over the phone.

My phone call took 23 minutes. If that sounds a tad long it’s because (a) I’m indecisive and (b) I’m a reporter and I tend to ask a lot of extra questions.

PICKING UP

When I arrived at the store, Fifield was outside helping another customer.

I smothered my hands with sanitizer, got out of the car, and another Martin’s employee, Katie Wilch, loaded my car with the hardware cloth and garden fabric.

Then it was on to the lumber yard.

Most of the customers who have tried out curbside shopping at the Middlebury Martin’s are homeowners, Fifield said as we filled my order. And they’re buying a lot of supplies for gardening and interior painting.

“We’re also selling a lot of networking cables and other electronics as people prepare to work from home,” she said.

One thing that does not appear to have changed during pandemic is the way that hapless home improvers like me end up having to make multiple trips to the hardware store for the same project.

“People are still coming back with returns,” Fifield said with a smile. “And we’ll swap things out for them.”

Something about the persistence of this phenomenon left me feeling hopeful.

I thanked Fifield and her colleagues for being there and headed home.

EXTRA EFFORT

Kathleen Clark co-owns the Martin’s stores with her husband, Martin. The Martin.

“We’re doing about one-third to one-half of normal business,” Clark told me over the phone a few days after my shopping trip. “But we’re all trying to have a good, positive attitude.”

The new temporary way of doing business can sometimes be exhausting, she acknowledged.

“We’re basically personal shoppers.”

Sometimes employees will make five or six trips in and out of the store until a customer recognizes the exact thing they want.

So far, Martin’s has been able to retain all of its employees, though a few have elected to stay home.

“Martin and I are trying to absorb the hit (of reduced business),” Clark said. “Payroll comes first. We love our employees. The people who work for us are family.”

The company does plan to apply for a Small Business Administration loan to help them get by, she said.

“People are buying a lot of household goods,” Clark said of the Bristol store. “Cleaners, toilet paper.”

Apparently people are also fixing a lot of holes in their walls.

“We’re selling a lot of joint compound,” she said with a laugh.

Other popular items include pet food, grain for horses and pigs, shavings and wood pellets.

“And people will always have plumbing emergencies,” Clark said. “This is why we need to stay open.”

KEEPING IT CLEAN

Crews at the Bristol and Middlebury locations sanitize the stores three times a day, Clark said.

Outside, they’re cleaning doors, railings and anything else that people might touch. 

Inside, they’re cleaning keyboards, computer mice, credit card terminals, writing pens, flip charts and the bathrooms.

“We’re being over-vigilant,” Clark said. “We are all coming from somewhere else when we come to work. We’ve all had to go to the grocery store. We don’t want anyone to get ill.”

Martin’s stores are independent dealers of TrueValue, a hardware wholesaler. What this means on a practical level is that the Clarks get to be part of a “buying co-op” with lots of inventory options.

But like many wholesalers TrueValue is struggling to keep up with certain demands.

“We’ll place orders for toilet paper, hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes and hope that they get partially filled,” Clark said.

In the early weeks of what eventually became the pandemic, Martin’s kept ordering, then selling out of, N-95 protective masks, which have now been deemed by national health officials as critical for frontline health care personnel.

Martin’s is still placing orders for the masks, but it’s not selling them anymore.

“What few we get we’re taking to Round Robin (in Middlebury) to donate,” Clark said. From there they get delivered to Porter Medical Center.

For their efforts, the folks at Martin’s have inspired gratitude from the community, Clark said.

“They say thank you for being here and for trying to keep our customers and our employees safe.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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