EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Rita Parr recognizes most customers who walk into her store. As owner of Parr's Hardware for 32 years, she has known many of the shoppers for decades, which comes in handy when people have a particular question or need guidance on a specific project.
"Almost everybody that came through the door, we could say, 'Hi Bob, hi Jim, how are you doing? What are you working on?'" Parr said. "We cater to more individual problems and needs. We're going to take the time to help you ... Our customers are our friends."
That personal touch has largely vanished for the near future. As a COVID-19 precaution, the store recently halved its hours and moved exclusively to curbside orders, recommending that people call ahead with a request before stopping by to complete the sale, the Leader-Telegram reported.
Hardware stores are considered an essential business and can remain open under Gov. Tony Evers' recent safer-at-home order, but Parr's Hardware is limiting the chances of coronavirus spread by minimizing personal interaction. The Eau Claire store was previously open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but its new hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Parr took coronavirus seriously when confirmed cases began occurring in the U.S., and she spoke with employees about potential measures the business would take to combat the virus, which causes COVID-19. In addition to fewer hours and curbside pickup, measures include limiting most shifts to two employees, workers maintaining social distancing, wearing gloves and consistently using hand sanitizer.
Employees also sanitize their phones and the store's computer keyboards. Most customers pay with credit cards, and the hardware store does not currently require a signature on receipts.
In mid-March, Parr allowed customers in the store while telling them to remain at least six feet away from others, and she then sanitized parts of the store. Parr quickly realized that was not feasible, so the business closed its doors to customers and moved to curbside pickup March 23.
"If I let people in to shop, how would I sanitize after they leave?" Parr said. "Where would I start?"
Cleaning supplies and masks are in high demand, but Parr said overall sales have significantly decreased in recent weeks. The business has stayed afloat mainly by offering tools to essential workers.
"We're way down on customers," Parr said. "I'm hoping it's because of the 'stay at home' orders."
The financial impact will almost certainly be negative, but Parr is most concerned about the health of customers and employees, many of whom are senior citizens and have a higher risk of becoming infected. If someone at the store tested positive or came into close contact with someone who had COVID-19, she would close the store for at least two weeks.
"I worry about the sales and having enough sales to make payroll and pay my bills, but what really keeps me up at night is I'm terrified that one of my customers will get it and die, one of my employees will get sick," Parr said. "You can make up money, but you can't replace people."
Parr fears another potential wave of cases in the fall when temperatures drop. She constantly reminds workers to stay more than six feet away and encourages shoppers to remain home, even if that impacts the store's bottom line.
"If it's something you really need, yes, come in, but otherwise stay at home," Parr said.
Most customers appreciate the precautions taken by Parr, but a few people asked why the store implemented its precautionary measures. Parr considers it training for when the situation gets worse and more local cases occur.
If more safety measures are needed, Parr said she will operate the store on her own. That is not the case right now, as two part-timers helped out on a recent Tuesday morning, one in the back of the store and one in front.
Clerk Terry Griffin handled the front of the store and took customer orders. Griffin has worked there for almost nine years and, before the coronavirus, relished the chance to converse with and assist people.
"It's like a paid hobby, and I enjoy being in here and helping people and getting to know people," Griffin said.
Parr believes the business will get through COVID-19 eventually. When business limitations end, Parr plans to continue operating under its regular hours and return to personal service.
For now, it will continue to operate in a limited capacity for an indefinite period of time.