By RYAN PATTERSON
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) — Rita Parr recognizes most customers who walk into her store. As owner of Parr’s Hardware for 32 years, she has known many of the shoppers for decades, a fact that comes in handy when people have a particular question or need guidance on a specific project.
“Almost everybody that came through the door, we could say, ‘Hi Bob, hi Jim, how are you doing? What are you working on?'” Parr said. “We cater to more individual problems and needs. We’re going to take the time to help you … Our customers are our friends.”
That personal touch has largely vanished for the near future. As a COVID-19 precaution, the store recently halved its hours and moved to accepting only curbside orders. Customers are now asked to call ahead with a request before stopping by to complete a purchase, the Leader-Telegram reported.
Such precautions haven’t been imposed by law. Hardware stores are considered an essential business under Gov. Tony Evers’ recent safer-at-home order and thus have no legal reason not to keep operating as usual. Parr’s Hardware is nonetheless trying to reduce the chances that coronavirus will be spread on its premises by taking steps to hold all personal dealings to a minimum. The Eau Claire store was previously open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Now its hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
When confirmed COVID-19 cases began appearing in the U.S., Parr wasted no time in devising a response. Beyond reducing her store’s hours and offering curbside pickup, she began scheduling no more than two employees for each shift and insisting that workers keep a safe distance from each other, wear gloves and make regular use of hand sanitizer. Employees must also sanitize their phones and the store’s computer keyboards.
Fortunately, most customers these days pay with credit cards. The hardware store has requirement they sign their receipts.
Some restrictions have had to be tightened up as time has gone by. In mid-March, Parr instituted a rule calling on customers to stay at least six feet away from others. When that proved impossible to enforce, she instituted her policy of allowing only curbside pickup.
“If I let people in to shop, how would I sanitize after they leave?” Parr said. “Where would I start?”
Of the store’s products, cleaning supplies and masks remain in high demand. Otherwise, though, sales have decreased in recent weeks. The business has managed to stay afloat mainly by offering tools to people working in businesses that are still operating because they have also been deemed essential.
“We’re way down on customers,” Parr said. “I’m hoping it’s because of the ‘stay at home’ orders.”
Parr is also concerned about the health of her customers and employees, many of whom are senior citizens and are thus among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. If someone at the store were to test positive or come into contact with someone who had COVID-19, she would close the store for at least two weeks, she said.
“I worry about the sales and having enough sales to make payroll and pay my bills, but what really keeps me up at night is I’m terrified that one of my customers will get it and die, one of my employees will get sick,” Parr said. “You can make up money, but you can’t replace people.”
Most customers appreciate the precautions. A few, though, have questioned Parr’s policies. Parr thinks she is merely doing what’s prudent in a situation that’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
If more safety measures are needed, Parr said she will be forced to operate the store on her own, a step she is glad she hasn’t had to take yet. On a recent Tuesday morning, two part-timers helped out, one in the back of the store and one in front.
Parr believes her business will get through COVID-19 eventually. When the government’s stay-at-home order ends, Parr plans to resume her regular hours and open her doors again to customers. For the time being, her employees are mainly just happy to have jobs.
On a recent day, Terry Griffin worked as a clerk taking orders at the front of the store. Griffin has been employed there for almost nine years. Before the coronavirus outbreak, relished the opportunity his job gave him to talk to people and provide various sorts of assistance.
“It’s like a paid hobby, and I enjoy being in here and helping people and getting to know people,” Griffin said.