Competing against 'essential' big boxes, small retailers cry foul

The storefront of Morris Furniture in Albert Lea, Minn.
The storefront of Morris Furniture in Albert Lea, Minn. The store has been closed under the state order that shuttered all but “essential” businesses to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Minnesota.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Mick and Peggy Kenis own Morris Furniture in the southern Minnesota city of Albert Lea. They’re closed under the state order that shuttered all but “essential” businesses.

Recently, they visited one of their big-box competitors, which are allowed to remain open because they sell goods considered essential — like groceries, pharmaceuticals and toilet paper.

“We personally went and observed, and seeing them go in and come out with their furniture, they came out with their sofas or came out with their recliner,” Mick Kenis said. He’s frustrated that big competitors that are allowed to remain open are selling stuff people would otherwise be buying from him.

MPR News put out a social media call asking people what they have been buying from businesses considered "essential.” We heard about a lot of nonessential purchases: a patio fireplace, a fancy grill. One person said the list was too long to share. Others thought we were trying to trap or shame them.

Cleaning supplies displayed at Morris Furniture
Cleaning supplies displayed at Morris Furniture.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Mick Kenis said his store is a block long, over 33,000 square feet, and customers and employees could easily keep a safe distance from one another — but they’re not allowed in.

“I think it’s unfair,” he said.

“This has cost us thousands upon thousands of dollars.”

Kenis is allowed to sell bedding and specialized lift-chairs, but that’s not enough to sustain the business his grandfather started in 1933, during the Great Depression.

“This is a big time of the year because the snowbirds are coming back from down south,” he said. “And they’re looking to decorate their homes and things like that. So, it’s been very encumbering over the past few weeks.”

It’s not just furniture merchants who are feeling the pain. Stacey Roberts is a partner at The Happy Sol, a clothing and gift shop in New London, Minn.

“Right now, we’re limping along,” she said.

A woman stands outside of a storefront.
Stacey Roberts co-owns The Happy Sol in downtown New London, Minn.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Roberts said sales are down 85 percent heading into what’s normally the busiest and most profitable six months of the year.

Even so, she applauds Gov. Tim Walz’s effort to address the pandemic.

“I don’t have a political stance on this,” she said. “I don’t want to be portrayed as either side.”

But she, too, thinks her business could safely open

“Or to even be able to offer appointments,” she said. “We can give them the attention they need. Wear a mask. Have gloves on. Clean the store before the appointment comes in. At least at that level, we could accommodate some of our customers and help our store.”

Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, was blunt in his assessment: “Their concerns are valid.”

He said he’s been urging Walz to allow small, “nonessential” businesses to reopen safely, and soon.

“I’m hoping it’s days,” he said. “We’ve deployed an extensive amount of knowledge about best practices. … Certainly there are some businesses that are harder to bring back because of the nature of their business. But I think, if we have full buy-in from the business community and from shoppers, I believe we can do it in a safe way and bring back more of our economy expeditiously.”

Starting this week, all Minnesota retailers were allowed to offer their products for curbside pickup or delivery. Walz hinted that reopening some businesses might be overdue.

“They have every right to feel the urgency, and it could move faster,” he said.

Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said Minnesota patterned its essential-business plan after national models. He acknowledged that the concerns of small businesses are fair. He did not say when they will be allowed to welcome customers inside.

“I don’t know yet if it will be days or weeks, but it certainly won’t be months,” he said. “If we can get this step right, with curbside delivery and pickup that gives us the confidence to move to another click on the dial. We do feel a strong sense of urgency. You heard the governor say that in the clip. We all feel that, and we’re moving quickly.”

Roberts, who owns the New London clothing store, said she doesn’t know how much longer she can “limp along.” She’s trying to liquidate spring merchandise online, at cost, in the hopes of getting enough cash to buy summer and fall inventory.

But she wonders, even if she's allowed to open her doors: Will customers, wary of the coronavirus, want to shop again as they once did? 

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