Stuck at home? Many deciding it's a good time to spruce it up

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Two men talk at a counter.
Kevin Abbott talks with customer John McCoy on March 25 at Abbott Paint and Carpet in St. Paul. Abbott says that his store has been busy as people take on home projects while they stay at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Kevin Abbott, who runs Abbott Paint and Carpet in St. Paul, says he’s never seen a run on paint like the one he’s dealing with now.

“I have been in the business 41 years, nothing anywhere near like this” he said during a short break in the action. “Everybody that can’t go to work and whatnot, they are going to say, ‘So, let’s take care of the inside of the house.’”

“It has been extremely busy,” he said — busy enough that he had to get extra staff in to handle the demand and busy enough that he hasn’t had much chance to calculate the financial impact.

“We didn’t even come close to taking lunch,” he said. “It was just that steady. People were lined up, giving themselves some more room. Some people needed more attention, coming in with gloves and things like that.”

And remarkably, he said, people were patient as they stood in line.

A line of people in a paint store.
Customers line up to purchase paint supplies at Abbott Paint and Carpet.
Courtesy of Kevin Abbot

It’s a scene that’s been replicated in a lot of paint and hardware stores. John Haka is general manager of the Midwest Hardware Association, which represents 600 independent stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Illinois. His members are also helping those preparing to turn their stay-at-home time into fix-up-the-home time.

“And obviously, they are looking for cleaning supplies, disinfecting supplies, things of that nature that are directly related to the COVID-19 outbreak,” he said.

Hardware and paint stores are deemed essential businesses and so remain open under the COVID-19 restrictions. Haka said throughout U.S. history, hardware stores have been places where people have turned in moments of crisis — although typically those are natural disasters that generate a need for repairs and rebuilding.

The changes brought about by the coronavirus restrictions mean changes for contractors, too.

While homeowners may be happy to do their own work, some are now less happy about having outsiders come into their homes. Yet, some opportunities are opening up.

A few days before Minnesota’s stay-at-home order went into effect, as he finished off a residential job in St. Paul, Matt Swanson was watching what would happen with other jobs. Though things were in flux, it’s clear he’s going to stay busy.

“We are getting a lot of churches calling us,” he said. “And some health care facilities that are emptying out where they are vacating floors that are like daily things, noncritical services.”

Swanson said the yearly transition from winter inside work to more outside painting means this is usually a busy time of year. But this is far from a usual year and he wonders how it will play out.

“Some jobs have been put on hold and that is going to bottleneck things when everything is released,” he said. “Unfortunately.”

Everyone is taking things day by day. Kevin Abbott said the initial customer rush has slackened some at the paint store.

A man hands another man a can of paint while standing outside a store.
Joe Faust picks up paint and other supplies from Sonny Hinson on March 25, 2020, at Abbott Paint and Carpet.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Like many other businesses he’s now offering curbside pickup. Customers call in their paint order and pay over the phone. They call again when they reach the store parking lot, and someone brings out the order. He has even begun a limited delivery service.

Abbott said they may trim their opening hours, but he said he’s committed to keep the community supplied in paint, now and in the future.

“If we thought the best thing was to just shut it down and maybe just do curbside, then I’d just sit here all day and night and answer phones, then just take it out to the parking lot,” he said.

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