Colders Giving COVID the Cold Shoulder

Colders met the COVID crisis with flying colors.

By Andy Kriege, YSN

Tom Balistreri and his team at Colders Furniture and Appliance in Milwaukee embraced a new maxim when the COVID crisis first hit these shores: “We need to be flexible; we need to be resilient; and we need to persevere!” It has remained their rallying cry since the beginning of the pandemic and is proving to be their prescription for surmounting it.

Colders, which carries furniture, appliances and mattresses, was deemed an “essential” business and was allowed to stay open during Wisconsin’s lockdown, which lasted several weeks starting in early March. While the BrandSource member’s four stores remained open throughout the quarantine, many aspects of doing business have changed, noted Balistreri, Colders’ Vice President of Merchandising.

The first month in particular was exceedingly tough but things have been improving ever since. “We had to furlough some staff, we shortened hours of operation to one shift, and we limited deliveries to curbside during the initial lockdown period,” he said. “Traffic in the stores was reduced significantly.”

In addition, Colders changed its marketing strategy by dropping all traditional media and focusing entirely on digital. Extra personnel were assigned to the company’s website chat feature and the hours that live chat was available were increased. Balistreri said the moves were made in order to be where the customers were — online. “People were not coming into our store near as much, but they were actively perusing our merchandise online,” he noted.

Ironically, after having to pink-slip employees at the onset of the pandemic, Colders is now challenged by a staff shortage as demand continues to pick back up. “We still are not able to get all the people that we were forced to furlough in March,” Balistreri acknowledged. “We are now hiring for all positions.”

Furniture demand has “increased considerably,” but still lags Colders’ appliance business, Vice President Tom Balistreri said.

Fortunately, the customers that are out shopping are highly motivated and come in ready to buy, Balistreri observed. “We are closing a very high percentage of the prospects, as long as we have the product. While demand for furniture has increased considerably, it still lags behind the appliance side of the business, which has been phenomenal,” he reported.

Due to the personnel shortage and a finite number of trucks, deliveries have become the number one issue for Colders right now. Indeed, the company has had to outsource delivery service to several outside contractors as an adjunct to its own, and still there’s at least a 10-day wait on orders, emergencies aside, making next-day delivery a thing of the past.

One consequence of the longer wait times is that Colders’ curbside pick-up business has been, well, picking up. The ability to get their merchandise immediately has motivated many customers to find a truck or a trailer and bring it home themselves, Balistreri said.

Customers who shop the stores have adapted to the new norm as well. They have been respectful of the social distancing practices, the VP said, and have for the most part been understanding about the product shortages and delivery delays. The exception is customers with products on back order and wait times approaching 90 days, who can get understandably testy.

Looking ahead, Colders plans to stick with its reduced single-shift hours and increased website staff. Balistreri believes that the pivot to online shopping and curbside pick-up will continue, and the company is further adjusting to the new reality and beyond by refining its operations.

“This has been a tremendous opportunity to look at changes and improvements to our systems and processes,” he told YSN. “We are finding pinch-points that have been magnified by having to work with a smaller staff. This has helped us to identify areas where we can create efficiencies that we will take forward beyond the current crisis.”

Befitting a member of the “Group of the Future,” it sounds like Colders is well prepared for whatever comes next.

BrandSource is a nationwide buying group for independent appliance, mattress, furniture and CE dealers and is a unit of YSN publisher AVB Inc.