The coronavirus pandemic is forcing Chicago-area companies and workers to face harsh realities about their paychecks and their place in the local economy. The Tribune is reaching out to hear, and share, their stories.
When Itasca, Ill.-based furniture company Walter E. Smithe started offering virtual interior design a couple of years ago, the service wasn’t much of a hit.
People wanted to sit-test sofas in the company’s 10 Chicago-area showrooms or have a designer come to their home.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, stores are closed, home visits are off-limits, and Walter E. Smithe’s designers and customers alike are getting used to communicating online when tackling home projects, said Colleen Smithe, the company’s director of advertising.
“It wasn’t a big part of our business, but we’re so happy we did it,” she said.
She and her three sisters are the fourth generation of Smithes in the family business, started by their great-grandfather in 1945.
There was a learning curve as designers, now working from home, got used to teaching customers to take measurements for floor plans and coaching them through purchasing furniture they can’t touch and feel first. Still, the shift was easier because the company already had the system in place, Smithe said.
Even as efforts to contain the pandemic affect consumers’ pocketbooks, people are still taking on home projects, Smithe said.
“If anything, some people are sitting in their homes and thinking, ‘I hate my sofa,'” she said.
Others have been buying desks and other items to upgrade home offices or buying furniture for long-planned moves.
People still like to try out furniture before buying. Smithe said she doesn’t think virtual design will replace showrooms anytime soon, but Walter E. Smithe plans to continue offering it once stores reopen.
“If people are time-pressed or don’t care about seeing an item in person, online design is perfect and designers are using the time now to get really comfortable with it,” she said.
A handful of manufacturers the retailer works with temporarily shut down or switched to making fabric masks instead of their usual products. But the company can still get items from most product lines to customers, along with custom-ordered products, and has started offering contact-free pickup at its Itasca warehouse, Smithe said.
Smithe said the company has been able to avoid layoffs or furloughs but declined to say how many people Walter E. Smithe employs, whether it sought loans for businesses affected by the pandemic, or comment further on the financial impact of the pandemic.
In the meantime, the company is working on plans to safely reopen stores, including limiting the number of people inside at a time and providing masks for all customers and employees. Skokie, where one store is located, already requires people wear masks in most public places, Smithe said.
The company hasn’t started stocking up, in part because it doesn’t want to compete with health care workers for protective equipment.
“We’re looking at everything day by day. … We can plan for the best, which would be opening the second the governor says we can. But it will depend on the governor’s order, CDC guidelines, and our and our employees’ comfort levels,” she said.