By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Paul Giunta, owner of Shore True Value Hardware in Somers Point, recently turned 50 years old. There’s a little more salt than pepper in his stubble these days. With a thriving business, a great staff that he could count on, and his boys off to college, Giunta figured that when the big 5-0 birthday rolled around he would be able to spend more time with his wife, Shannon, and doing the things he loves — namely surfing in the summer and skiing in winter.
So much for that plan.
A fire in 2018 that gutted the store, and now the coronavirus pandemic, have had Giunta feeling more like the young man in his 20s who had to hustle every day to keep the family business successful, and less like a guy with more free time on his hands. So much for his big plan! Giunta and sister, Alison Dannehower, are working 60-plus-hour weeks trying to keep everything running, as the pandemic has created huge demand for all kinds of items. People have been stuck at home for several months and have had the time to get to those home and yard projects they have been putting off.
Some may envy Giunta and his staff, as their business was deemed essential and therefore allowed to remain open during a statewide shutdown that lasted from March into early June, but with that has come a whirlwind of challenges. There have been interruptions throughout the supply chain, which hasn’t made stocking the products people want an easy task, and like any small business owners Giunta and his sister have had to worry about their staff and their fears about contracting the virus and taking it home to their loved ones.
“We are very fortunate that we do have a great staff. We hire some retired trade people, who I lost when (Covid-19) started because they didn’t want to come in, I lost a key cashier because she has kids and she was stuck at home with them because there was no school. Couple the loss of 20 percent of your staff with an increase in business like I’ve never seen in all my years of doing this, it made for a challenging first month. Giunta explained that the CEOs of the major independent hardware distributors got together and wrote a letter to every governor in the country that local hardware stores should be deemed essential, and fortunately the governor’s agreed.
We experienced things our friends who had to close didn’t, but they’re experiencing that now,” Giunta said. “In other words, a staff that is freaked out — they do not know what the protocol is, should I wear gloves? Should I wear a mask? The first two or three days after the pandemic hit we were walking around like business as usual. There was no order to limit the number of people in the store, there were no orders to wear masks yet — all the things that were put into place, like social distancing, wearing a mask, sanitizing, cleaning the store — we implemented a few days after the shutdown. The first few days were nuts.
“We were dealing with employees who were concerned, worried they might take the virus home to their families; I was worried about them, and myself,” he continued. “It was one challenge on top of the next and every day it seemed the rulebook changed. What I am seeing now is all these businesses that are just opening up are going through the same thing. They have people who have been sitting home for three months, watching the news, reading social media posts and coming back to work and they are worried about catching the virus.”
The fire of 2018
Two summers ago, in early June, a fire broke out at Shore Hardware and the store was forced to close for five months. One of the most relied upon hardware stores in the area had to shut its doors, and it took until late fall before the store was ready to be reopened.
The entire store had to be emptied and cleaned out, repainted, new wiring. Nearly all the inventory was lost because of fire or smoke damage.
“We barely made it through that,” Giunta said. “Luckily, when you pay your insurance, you have business interruption, so we collected on that and the insurance company helped make us whole again. It’s not like we lost money, but we probably lost customers because people find other places to go. But the community was so supportive throughout.”
“When we had the fire, I remember hugging (Paul) and I’d was crying, saying, ‘I’m too old for this!’ I don’t want to do this again,” Alison said. “(This was their second fire in 20 years) so we got through that and we were like, OK, now we’re on cruise control, everything is new in the store, this is great. But then corona hit, and it’s been insane. Some days I have to remind myself how fortunate we are to be able to remain open when so many of our friends and customers are forced to shut their doors. We have brought our kids in to help, we’ve tried to do everything possible to insure a safe environment and adapting to changes every day.”
Supply and demand
What many people might not realize about the retail business is there are so many moving parts, starting with manufacturing and continuing down through the supply chain. Disinfecting wipes and Lysol sprays have been nonexistent in grocery stores since March because the manufacturers couldn’t have anticipated needing that much supply, and it may not be until early 2021 when they can finally catch up with that.
The same has been true for the hardware industry. Giunta said he has seen incredible increase in the demand for items that normally would sell at a much more pedestrian rate, such as paint, wheel barrows, lawn and garden items, etc.
“Everybody has been stuck at home. They could not go out, there were no restaurants to go to, no clothing stores open. This is it. We saw an incredible increase in paint sales — anything lawn and garden. Many people have returned to gardening and growing their own. We did not see that coming. Our soil vendor, Scotts/Miracle Grow, couldn’t forecast a 40 percent increase, so the wholesalers are out of everything, the distributors are out of everything — right down the supply chain, they’re going through everything that we are. It’s the entire industry. When you go into a store and see an aisle that is completely empty, it starts at manufacturing. They cannot produce it fast enough, and that trickles down to distribution. We’re starting to see a recovery, but I’m thinking it will be January before they are back to full speed in all facets of distribution, whether it’s the grocery supply chain or hardware stores,” Giunta said. “We’ve been out of stock on items we are never out of because of the supply chain interruptions. We took two afternoons and closed the store to just to get merchandise out on the shelf and clean and sanitize the store.
“Every day we have a cleaning protocol where the staff goes around and cleans all the high-touch areas. They are doing that three times a day. The challenges are so many to list.”
And with so much free time, suddenly everybody wants a fire pit in their back yard.
“One of the things that started selling immediately after the lockdown were firepits. Everybody wanted to have a fire pit,” Giunta said. “These are items that are typically imported once a year and when they are gone you don’t see them again until the next year.”
Face masks have also been in high demand, and back in March, when everyone was scrambling to find them, Shore Hardware was one of the few places in Atlantic or Cape May counties that had a steady supply.
“One of the things that helped us initially was we were one of the only stores to have any type of mask,” Alison said.
“The first few days after the shut down, I was answering the phone and people were asking for masks, sanitizers, wipes. My reply was no I am sorry we do not,” Giunta said. “That is not like me to continually say no. If somebody calls me two times for a product that we do not stock, I go and find it. So I sat here one night thinking there has to be somebody. I called a friend of mine in Philly who owns an ACE Hardware store, and he said, ‘drive up, I have all the masks you need.’ He kept me well stocked in the initial days of the pandemic.
“I think people are still going to be required to wear a mask, at least until the end of the year and maybe until a vaccine comes along. You are still going to see social distancing — all that stuff will still be in effect, at least through Christmas. They are talking about a second wave, but people want to get out and do things.”
The ebb and flow to supply and demand, which is normally fairly predictable year after year, is anything but these days, and that has forced Giunta and Alison to be much more focused on planning ahead and trying to anticipate what items will be needed, and when. It’s not a typical year when they can say, OK, we sold this many gas grills last summer, so if we stock a similar number this year we should be fine. The status quo is not enough anymore, and they have to make sure they are stocked with the products people want, or their customers will go somewhere else.
“What I’m doing right now is I’m looking at mosquito repellents. We have order in larger quantities now because our supplier will be out of stock. Then we hope that our train of thought is correct. Umbrellas, chairs, fans, all that stuff,” Alison said. “When I finally have a chance to talk to friends, they have no idea that I’m basically having a panic attack every day.
“We added curbside pickup, for people who did not want to enter the store. We didn’t realize the magnitude of the challenge to our staff,” she adds. “People call in, they want to chat, the staff member has to take time to write up the order, then they have to go shop for that order, then ring it up, and deliver it to the customer upon arrival. We were attempting to please everyone and we were already understaffed. Eventually people would see the line (at the door) so they would call in from the parking lot. It became too much so we adjusted. We still offer curbside pickup however, now when you place a curbside order you can pick it up the next day. It got to that point because we were getting overwhelmed and could not serve the customer who was in the store adequately.”
“We feel good now about (being prepared), but tomorrow it could change. And it has,” Giunta added. “I come into work some days and I am like, ‘today is going to be awesome. I have the staff in the right places, I have product in the store.’ And then something goes haywire or a rule changes.”
With so much chaos happening on a near-daily basis, Giunta recruited his son, Vincent, and Dannehower’s daughter, Riley. Vincent had several of his former Mainland Regional boy’s lacrosse teammates ask for work as well.
“We wasted no time putting them to work,” Giunta said. “They learned on the fly and in less than a week were doing a great job. I provide extraordinarily little training due to the volume of business we were experiencing but they all jumped right in.”
These young men are all in college now and were forced to head home to finish out their spring semesters, so Giunta has put them to work to help during a time when he is short-staffed.
“I brought in the Mainland (2018) CAL champions and they’ve been outstanding. My son Vincent, Pat Taylor, Hunter Faunce and Dillon Dill. They have been building grills and wheelbarrows, doing deliveries, loading soil and mulch into cars, filling propane. These kids are phenomenal. We got lucky because they got sent home from college, and now they have an opportunity to make a few bucks. They have been a saving grace to me,” Giunta said. “I have told all these kids that this is such an impressive thing to have on your resume. You worked at an essential business during Covid-19. First-hand experience, they were running-and-gunning and hustling. It’s a resume builder for them.”
Giunta said he’s also relied on his managers to lead the way on a daily basis, and they answered the call.
“We’re averaging more than 600 transactions per day, and, thankfully, nobody has tested positive for Covid. I have had a few staff members who have gotten sick, but it’s just been a normal cold of flu symptoms. We had to follow protocol so if they were sick, they stayed home for 2 weeks, regardless of the illness. My managers have done a great job implementing everything in the store. They ran with it, and that really helped,” he said.
These days, Giunta and his team are working furiously to prepare for the summer months, and whatever might come their way this fall. They also must be hyper aware of their surroundings inside the store and make sure they are sanitizing as much as possible to ensure the safety of their customers. Giunta also believes this challenging time — coming on the heels of the fire in 2018 — has only strengthened the bond between management and staff at Shore Hardware.
“We’re doing what we’ve done for the last 50 years. It is all about the local connection, having the people in place who can help you and not just point you down an aisle. It has always been our staff and our customer service and how we treat people. You are not going to get that at a box store. That is how I see our survival,” Giunta said.
“We’ve always called our staff family because we spend more time with them than we do our own families,” he added. “The bond we have created during this has become even stronger. It has evolved to more of a peer relationship than, ‘I’m the boss, you’re the employee.’ They must feed me information so we can make the right decisions. I rely on that information, and for three months it has been solid. I think that bond has really been solidified.”
In the retail business, one must be prepared for anything, and for the most part Shore Hardware has been. Giunta knows nothing can be taken for granted in local retail, though.
“Our family grew up in this business and typically we can handle what is thrown our way. Whether it’s a hurricane, a blizzard, power outages we got you covered, we are pro’s at that stuff!” he said. “Covid sent us back to the minor leagues, I think we will get drafted soon!”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays