COVID-19's effect on two Grafton, N.D., businesses shows stark contrast
As in other towns and cities across northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, the pandemic has affected sectors of the economy in different ways.
GRAFTON, N.D. – Celebrating The Squire Shop’s 50th anniversary in the midst of a pandemic isn’t what owner Rita Amiot had planned, but she didn’t let it stop her.
The clothing store’s owner since 1984, Amiot is used to the ups and downs of the retail industry and the importance of adjusting her plans for the store to coincide with the reality of the economic climate. Though Amiot was disappointed she couldn’t hold the large 50th anniversary celebration she had planned at the store in October 2020, she instead hosted a smaller event.
“I sent out a mailer to all of the people that were on my customer list and then, they, at their leisure, could come in and look around, and do it when there weren't a lot of people in the store,” Amiot said.
For Amiot, and for many business owners, the past year has been challenging as she tries to figure out ways to keep moving her products out the door while operating with reduced income.
As in other towns and cities across northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, the pandemic has affected other sectors of the economy differently. For example, Marvin in Grafton has seen increased demand for the custom-made, double-hung windows produced at the manufacturing plant.
After a strong start to 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, there was uncertainty about what demand would be like the rest of the year, said Vicki Ham, human resources officer at Marvin in Grafton. However, business rebounded during the summer, she said.
“We had a very successful year,” she said.
But at The Squire Shop, the loss of customers and revenue during the coronavirus pandemic damaged her bottom line more than the drought of the late 1980s, Amiot said.
“This is by far, worse,” Amiot said. “I saw a decrease in people. The biggest thing you have in a small town is events.”
The canceled events resulted in fewer customers.
“It took away the need for a lot of the products,” she said.
Meanwhile, in 2020 Amiot didn’t host her spring and fall fashion shows at The Squire Shop, because it would have cost more to advertise for them than the dollars the event would have brought in, she said. She doesn’t plan to hold a spring fashion show this year either, since she’s not yet comfortable hosting a large gathering.
“It’s just not safe yet,” she said.
Though the number of positive cases of COVID-19 in Amiot’s retail area have dropped in recent months, the traffic at The Squire Shop hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. Her customer base – men and women 60 and older – don’t feel comfortable going to public places.
“It is improving slowly, but it is percentage-wise, maybe 20% of the normal people in that group we have seen,” Amiot said.
She hasn’t laid off any employees during the past year, but she has reduced their hours and the store’s hours to cut costs. Amiot is determined to do all she can to keep her staff and customers safe. So, she will continue to require face coverings in her store for the time being.
“I think I will continue that until Walsh County has no cases," she said.
Marvin immediately put in place safety protocols – social distancing, sanitization stations and the wearing of face coverings – at the onset of the pandemic, said Shane Shereck, Marvin environmental health and safety supervisor.
“We were wearing masks before it was mandated,” he said.
The plant also reduced the spread of COVID-19 with daily, pre-shift screenings of its 400 employees, spreading out workers as much as possible in the facility and changing the way meetings are conducted, Shereck said. Instead of gathering in large groups for meetings, small groups of people, socially distanced, now watch meetings on electronic screens throughout the plant.
“Marvin has five basic company values that we work by and that we live by,” Shereck said.
“The one value that really hit home for me during the pandemic was ‘Do the right thing.’”
“It doesn’t say ‘Do the easy thing.’ It says ‘do what is right,’” he said.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic some of the safety and health measures we had to put in place were hard for everyone at every level. But it was the right thing to do to protect the safety and health of our 400 employees here in Grafton,” Shereck said.
The Marvin plant is “extremely busy” and demand for its windows has resulted in a labor shortage, Ham said. “We are hiring.”
Demand for Marvin windows manufactured at the plant increased as people spent more time at home renovating their work and home spaces, she said.
“It’s not just creating dedicated home office space, workout rooms or creating space for all those home deliveries – it’s expanding space outdoors, enhancing the ability to enjoy fresh air or natural daylight and creating cozy spaces to relax and escape for a bit of ‘me time,’” she said.
Meanwhile, home improvement sales also were driven by people spending more time in their second homes or buying a second home.
“Working remotely provides flexibility to take advantage of these getaways, and provide a respite from urban and suburban living or just a safe change of scenery,” Ham said.
Most of the trends were occurring pre-pandemic, but have accelerated since its onset, she said. Another reason demand has increased during the past year is because people also reprioritized their home improvement plans, such as adding larger doors leading out to a new patio before they created a kitchen for entertaining, she said.
As business the first two and a half months of 2021 remains slow, Amiot is braced for another challenging year.
But Amiot has weathered hard times in the retail business before and tries to be positive about the financial challenges the pandemic has created, noting that her business, which is established, is in a better position to meet them than younger business owners who are just starting out.
“You have to take a breath and say ‘I’m still here. My husband’s still here. It’s not the end of the world,’” she said.