‘It’s a balancing act’: Bay Area hardware stores battle through a crazy year

In San Francisco, the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn have hit many local businesses like a ton of bricks. But for a select few sectors, business has been booming, from the grocery stores that saw mobs of panic-buyers to the gardening centers overwhelmed by bored quarantiners starting victory gardens.

So, what about our neighborhood hardware stores, trustworthy bastions of power tools and cleaning supplies? Are they crazy-busy from the legions of people taking on home improvement projects, or struggling to survive? Four of our favorite local spots told us how they’re doing, from enduring multiple burglaries to seeing soaring sales on unexpected items.

While business has generally been OK in 2020 at Cliff’s Variety in the Castro, general manager Terry Asten Bennett said they’re forecasting a rough fourth quarter. A lot of the store’s sales come from gifts, souvenirs and seasonal items, and with Halloween effectively canceled and the December holidays up for debate, it could be a tough three months. Sales in September were trending 10% down, when they had only been 5% down over the summer months.

“It’s a balancing act,” Asten Bennett said. “I’m so grateful we got to be open this whole time but it still really hurts. Normally our fourth quarter carries us. We’ve forecasted a bad Halloween.”

While certain department’s sales are up — she said jigsaw puzzle sales have grown 300% — she said the lack of tourists buying gifts, souvenirs and novelty items is hurting their bottom line. She also said school supply sales have been down as kids stay home for distance learning. Most of all, Asten Bennett said she thinks some people are still just scared to go to stores and are choosing online shopping over a traditional retail experience. “We’re also getting really hurt by the Amazon effect,” she said. “People aren’t shopping local even though they’re a block away. That hurts all retail out there.”

Other items usually less popular, like cookware and anything in the home improvement arena, have been in high demand. “I think everyone has painted every room in their house at this point,” Asten Bennett said with a laugh. “Painting is finally slowing down. With every new cooking trend, cookware goes up.”

She said while she’s happy to see the restaurants coming back and getting creative with outdoor dining, the number of parklets in the neighborhood eliminates needed parking spaces for people shopping at the store.

“The number of parklets popping up has made parking decrease dramatically and that shows an immediate hit to our businesses,” Bennett said. “If you want to have a community on the other side of this you have to find a way to support your local businesses.”

Asten Bennett said they feel fortunate that they own the building, meaning the only landlord they have to bargain with is themselves. This has helped her be able to put her employees first whenever she can, including buying the staff lunch from neighborhood restaurants every day from March through June.

“In the beginning there wasn’t a day where [a customer] wasn’t screaming at us,” Asten Bennett said of enforcing new rules due to COVID-19. “My staff is putting themselves out there. Employees need good mental health. I had to put my staff first.”

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