I was sitting glued to my computer screen, listening to the governor of Indiana give a statement about COVID-19. It was the announcement all business owners were dreading, and as he uttered the words "all nonessential businesses in the state must close," I heard a rumble. I went outside and I could hear the roar more clearly.
I swear it was like a scene out of "Braveheart." There was a mob of people with signs, pitchforks and even torches burning. They were chanting, "We are essential, we are essential!" And just over the ridge was another group, and they were chanting, "You are not essential; you must go home and stay put! Go home."
I continued to watch, mesmerized by what was happening in front of me, and just as the two groups were about to collide, everyone stopped about six feet away from one another. I’m pretty sure that is what happened, or maybe it just was a meme I saw online.
All fun aside, I never would have guessed that I’d have to figure out if our business was essential. The governor’s first order listed pet supply and care businesses as essential, so we rapidly adapted our cleaning procedures and incorporated social distancing into our routine but continued to groom pets under the assumption that those services would fall under "pet care."
Nobody was happy. Some of our employees did not feel safe coming to work, and some customers were concerned about breaking the order by bringing their dog for grooming. I began making the first of many, many calls to the state trying to get clarity. About a week after the initial order was announced, it was modified with the language "pet grooming is nonessential." When I received that order, I shut down our grooming operation, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I had customers who wanted to come in and would take any additional steps required to be able to keep their dogs on a routine; I had employees who did not want to go on unemployment and wanted to work; and then I had employees who were scared and did not want to report in. Sometimes doing the right thing is the absolute hardest thing to do. I furloughed our entire staff, and my wife and I continued to run the essential pet food store, although it really was an effort in futility. I quickly realized many of our regulars were not coming in for pet food because they were trying to limit their exposure. Some felt it was just safer to make one trip to the grocery store for all their needs, and since many of the grocery brands are far less expensive than the premium foods I offer, it also allowed them to save a little money, which everyone was trying to do.
I tried to make the best of the situation. The first few days I felt like I was a kid getting a few surprise snow days. I had a six-door freezer sitting in our storage garage. Installing it was going to severely disrupt our business so it had remained in the garage. With nothing to disrupt, I quickly got that scheduled and installed. I reset our entire store shelving and continued to work on maintenance items I was always too busy to complete.
Entering the third week, I started to get really depressed as all the fear set in. When will we be able to reopen grooming? How am I going to make our rent payment? Will our food clients return? Is our staff going to come back? Many of our former employees were bringing home more money than when they were employed thanks to some extra unemployment funding during this crisis. There was also so much stress figuring out the governmental changes. Everything concerning unemployment, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), tax rules, Small Business Association (SBA) loans and more seemed to change by the minute. Like most micro independents, I do not have a human resources firm to help me navigate these instant changes, so I spent many long nights online trying to figure out how to stay in compliance with changes.
If you’re a longtime reader, you know I try to report on the daily life of running a micro independent pet store and impart some wisdom I have learned along the way. I have nothing for you this month. This COVID-19 world is changing so rapidly that my head is still spinning. I’m trying to balance the health and safety of our staff and clients along with the wishes and desires of our clients—not to mention trying to keep the lights on. At the time of this writing, the governor of Indiana has just opened up pet grooming. It is one of the first businesses he lifted restrictions on. I am back in overdrive trying to figure out the new rules and restrictions. Most of my staff has returned, and the register is starting to ring.
I am so thankful for a few of the pet industry retailer groups on Facebook that have helped me navigate so much of this. Even now, I am looking for guidance on the proper ways to restore to the new normal. I hope that once the dust settles, the various pet industry associations will look at what more they could’ve done to help businesses work through these scenarios, especially micro independents.
Stay safe out there, and to quote one of my favorite musicals, "The sun will come out tomorrow, so ya gotta hang on ’til tomorrow. Come what may tomorrow, tomorrow."
B.C. Henschen is a well-known champion for pet owners who want the best in their pet’s food. He is the Association for Truth in Pet Food (ATPF) consumer advocate, and is a past director with the World Pet Association (WPA). Henschen is a popular speaker at industry events and meetings. A certified pet care technician and an accredited pet trainer, he is a partner in Platinum Paws, a full-service pet salon and premium pet food store in Carmel, Ind. His knowledge of the pet food industry makes Platinum Paws the go-to store for pet owners who want more for their pet than a bag off a shelf.