If it seems like the parking lot at that big-box home improvement store you drive past is always packed lately, or that the line for paint at your neighborhood hardware store is longer than normal — and not just because all of the customers are standing 6 feet apart — you are not imagining things.
With the coronavirus pandemic hopefully at or near its peak in Minnesota and the Dakotas, and the majority of non-essential employees working from home, many more people in the region are making the most of this additional time to improve their place of residence.
Hardware and home improvement stores are essential businesses and as such have been open throughout the stay-at-home orders imposed in Minnesota. Spring is normally a time for home projects, but this spring has been like no other, and the impact is being felt across the industry.
“We are blessed to be able to be open and we are busy. People are catching up on projects,” confirmed Mike Frattallone, whose family owns more than 20 hardware stores and garden centers throughout the Twin Cities. “When you have a month at home, you can catch up on things like that faucet that has been dripping or the flapper in your toilet that needs replacing. Those are things that you don’t do on a beautiful Friday if you’ve been at work for eight hours, but if you’ve been at home for eight hours, you figure this is the time to catch up.”
Like most retailers, Frattallone’s stores are encouraging social distancing, they are cleaning several times a day, and are appreciative when customers wear masks. Many stores have hired additional workers to facilitate things like curbside pickup. One downside to the increased business, retail experts say, is that those safety and sanitation efforts can be an additional expense, even when receipts are up at the cash register.
“It’s definitely not universal to everybody that is open, because we know that expenses are fairly high right now if you’re open,” said Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association. “So some of that uptick in business is off-set by some of the extraordinary expenses we have right now.”
While sales tax receipts for April will not be turned in to the Minnesota Department of Revenue until May 20, it is expected that those numbers will show a spike in business not only at the neighborhood hardware stores, where people go when there are normal home improvements and painting to be done, but at the places that sell the goods for larger-scale remodeling projects.
The building permit numbers show a jump in activity, at least in some communities. In April 2018, the city of St. Paul approved 287 building permits. In April 2019 that number was 388. In April of this year, there were 1,353 approved building permits in the city, and while those numbers are not broken down by residence or business, with non-essential businesses closed, it is likely that much of that activity is at homes in the state’s second-most populous city.
MidState Disposal, based in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., rents roll-off dumpsters that hold up to 30 cubic yards. They are hauled to job sites and commonly are seen in driveways while remodeling is going on. According to owner Dan Radant, this spring has been among his busiest, and not only due to home improvement projects. With students at home, many Minnesota school districts have taken advantage of the empty classrooms and gotten an early start on projects like remodeling, expansion and asbestos removal, which normally do not begin until June, after classes have been dismissed.
“It really depends on the store, but hardware and home improvement seems to be somewhat robust,” said Nustad. “I think that makes sense when you’ve got folks spending more time at home, looking at their walls, thinking about projects, combined with nicer weather, which influences consumer behavior. And you have people like me who have a graduate this year, and although I might not know when that graduation party is, I’m still thinking about it and when and what I need to do to prepare. So I think you do see some more economic activity.”