The prolonged lockdown in Sydney and snap lockdowns elsewhere around the country are playing havoc with the window furnishings industry. WFA spoke to several retailers and wholesalers about how they have dealt with the complex business restrictions.
“We have been able to maintain on-site business operations fully from a warehousing products distribution perspective,” says Stephen Eggleton, Managing Director of Somfy Oceania.
“Customer care and support which would normally be done also from Rydalmere have mostly gone remote, in terms of staff work-from-home.”
“All other functions – sales, marketing, finance – are work-from-home. We are fortunate that our connected technology lets us be quite productive work-from-home as most comms are through Teams Channels and Teams on-line calls.”
“The team have been incredibly adaptive to working from home and all the associated challenges this presents,” adds Somfy Oceania’s Head of Marketing, Paul de Salis.
“We have embraced that working from home is different – we encourage the little ‘interruptions’ from the kids and the family dog and also ensure flexible working hours to suit the situation.
“We have conducted workplace assessments of home work stations to ensure the safety of our team and embraced new ways of communicating, utilising MS Teams and upgrading our phone system to allow remote answering.
“We’ve also conducted virtual social events and sent out hampers to our staff to boost morale and keep spirits high in these challenging times.”
“Most of our customers have been adversely affected in part or fully during the various lockdown periods and as is the case, continuing in Sydney,” continues Eggleton.
“The upside, helping everyone keep positive, is the high level of business activity brought about by the home renovation surge and increased demand for window coverings and associated home automation.
“Days before the first lockdown in early 2020, Somfy Oceania established the Somfy Care Covid-19 (SCC) action group aiming to ensure all the team are following governing protocols, in addition to Somfy Group COVID-safe workplace health, safety and wellbeing guidelines.”
BLINDS BY PETER MEYER
Simon Meyer from Blinds by Peter Meyer says restrictions have impacted his business primarily with a decrease in productivity. However, it has also increased the company’s ability to be nimble and creative in our problem solving.
“The greatest impact has been on our staff who live in the Local Government Areas (LGAs) facing the harshest restrictions. We are now essential authorised workers, so our staff who live in the restricted LGAs can still come on site.”
“However at its peak, we had 11 staff members from the LGAs in full lockdown and in an organisation the size ours, this crippled the ability of approximately 30% of our workforce to come on site.”
“It certainly meant we were struggling there for a bit. However, it also meant we had to think on our feet and come up with creative solutions. At one point, we actually delivered stock to one of our employee’s home address and they started manufacturing from their garage – it was all hands on deck to help keep them working and the business running smoothly.”
As those in Melbourne can attest, perhaps the biggest challenge for many working from home is homeschooling.
“I have three kids under 10 myself and it can certainly be a challenge to juggle everything. But we work through it with open communication and understanding that everyone is impacted one way or another.”
“Many of our customers have been impacted in the same ways we have. On a positive note, our virtual showroom has come in handy for those customers that have also had to shut their on-site showrooms.”
Lorraine Scott the director of Capitol Shutters says that their imported finished product has still been coming in as planned, however the company is bursting at the seams after reaching warehousing capacity.
“This is because our retailers in LGAs of concern have a backlog of goods they are storing as they’ve been unable to install, so they have run out of room.”
“Our warehousing staff now have a Covid test every three days and all deliveries are contactless. This has slowed workflow a little as we need to schedule delivery runs around staffing availability as a result.”
Joshua Phipps from Marketmakers says lockdowns are extremely tough on manufacturing and warehousing businesses.
“It’s almost impossible to work from home when you are across importing, wholesaling, retailing.”
“If I could work from home why would I then have a $100,000 rent bill per annum if I had the choice to work from home?”
“The landline rings and you are at 30% capacity with people in the office – it’s extremely tough on the staff shouldering this responsibility.”
Phipps adds that with all Sydney retail shutdown for the foreseeable future any momentum the business had heading into the season has been stalled.
John Clark from Aeronaut Automation says there has been three phases in this pandemic for his business.
“The first two were cycles of lockdown and then release which were manageable as a business. However, due to a bewildering number of factors, a lot of threats appeared on the horizon.”
“The first and most noticeable of these was the chip shortage which threatened to affect everything from computers to motion controllers. This then spread to all sorts of components from electric motors and small electrical components through to textiles. Both appear to have had something to do with Chinese factories underestimating demand and slowing production early in the cycle. The solution to this was to buy up in advance and in large enough quantities to cover any eventuality.”
“The next problem, for which there are many theories is freight. Some say it’s to do with a trade war between China and the USA. Others say it’s to do with the freighter that ran aground in the Suez. All we know is that freight costs have gone through the roof with 400 – 600% increases to the point where were often paying more for freight than for the shipped goods.”
“We’re seeing almost daily emails from suppliers having to increase costs from materials like aluminium, plastics and rubber both in Australia and overseas.”
Despite these challenges Clark says that last financial year was very good for Aeronaut, both within Australia and with exports.
“We’re holding our breaths in NSW at the moment though we have enough forward orders for many months.”
“What’s a bigger concern is the move from Jobkeeper to the vague Jobsaver and disaster payments. It appears that now, a worker can decide to stay home 2-3 days a week collecting disaster payments and come into work for the balance which could seriously affect our manufacturing.“
Installation and service has also been made very difficult.
“There are only so many things you can do via Zoom. We’ve had service people escape NSW for other states so we can continue to install and service machines with training being augmented via Zoom.”
“We’ve had to use overseas agents and contractors for some work and overall, had to increase the documents we have for self-install, mainly for distributors to use.”
Michelle Macready from BM Blinds says that for those on the outside such as their customers, it would appear that things have not changed too much at BM Blinds.
“Orders are being produced with the same dedication to quality, service, and excellence. On the inside, however, things are very different as we adapt to the ever-changing health and government regulations.”
“We have had the need to hold regular meetings with our staff to bring them along on the journey. These meetings have proven to be uplifting and inspiring, full of information to help make working in these challenging times as comfortable and reliable as ever.”
The production of wholesale blinds was also impacted by the ever-changing situation.
“We have continued to maintain a Covid-safe workplace with mandatory check ins for all attendees to the site, together with daily temperature checks, the wearing of face masks and social distancing,” Macready says.
“With most of our customers being based in the regional and rural areas of NSW, they relied on us to continue to produce quality blinds to help support their businesses.”
“No visitors are allowed onsite and our local customers that normally pick up their orders from our premises in North-Western Sydney had been notified of a new contactless pick-up procedure.”
“Just when we thought we had survived the pandemic relatively unscathed, along came the Delta variant.”
Joanne de Silva from Dalekit Awnings says that it is evident from the number of orders in their system that consumer sentiment and concern regarding having tradespeople come to their homes is stifling sales significantly.
“We are seeing a whole new ballgame with the Delta strain. As a manufacturer we often get caught in the middle between retailers pushing for their products and delays or stock shortages from our suppliers. Whilst we are not in contact with the end public, we feel the effects down the line shown by the downturn in sales and sales delays, de Silva says.
“Whilst Dalekit always had an open door policy, July 2021 was the first time we have closed the doors to visitors and drop ins.”
“Pick-ups need to be booked with despatch which assists keeping the number of people in the areas down, but allows better time management in the despatch area.”
“Where previously we have found numerous customers turn up to collect orders at the same time we can now schedule so we do not have ques of customers waiting which also assists in decreasing exposure for the installers waiting to pick up.”
De Silva says trying to find a compromise between remaining fully operational and keeping staff as safe as possible has been a challenge.
“We made the decision to cut the manufacturing days down to help limit staff movements. Keeping them home as much as possible especially when bans were placed on construction and home maintenance was at the time a lesser of two bad options.”
“Once the construction and maintenance industries opened we extended to being open four days a week continuously needing to adapt in line with the constant revisions of Public Health Orders and being able to meet our customer’s needs.”
“Downturn in business is never easy, but we have used the time to ready our systems to release new products and implement new internal procedures.”
Dalekit currently has half its staff in lockdown LGAs, meaning they cannot travel to the factory.
“Those that can attend have been working extra hard to keep up with demand and office staff are working from home which has required a quick learning curve to be able to function as a collaborative team from our individual homes and using the quieter time to create technical information sheets, installation guides, troubleshooting guides etc. to help our retailers which we wouldn’t usually have the time to do.”
Bas Kalaitjis from Carr group says that the lockdowns have seen a slight dip in sales but the business is still running at 90%.
“Our warehouse hours and days have changed to three days a week and we are experiencing overseas shipment delays.”
“As a result of the change in warehouse hours, some customers will be experiencing delays on stock.”
Kalaitjis adds that the company is currently encouraging all of its employees to get vaccinated.
After originally closing down the whole business including manufacturing at the beginning of the ‘hard lockdown’ Sharon Tieman says being part of the construction industry means that Gosford-based Premier Shades was able to restart operations.
“We have had so many new procedures to put in place and they change regularly. Like the government!”
“During lockdown we sent text out to our team keeping them up to date as things changed. We also rang them to check in on them and made sure they understood how to apply for the government Covid relief payments. Now we are back we keep them updated every few days.”
Tieman says that Retirement Villages have stopped installations, and many elderly customers are a little frustrated.
“Very, very few of our customers want us to wait until after ‘lockdown’ but most are happy we are returning and happy to comply with our strict ‘contactless’ terms.”