Virus Diaries: Sales Are Down But Optimism Blooms at Tipton & Hurst

Virus Diaries: Sales Are Down But Optimism Blooms at Tipton & Hurst
Howard Hurst, president and CEO of Tipton & Hurst of Little Rock. (Jason Burt)
Editor's Note: This is the 14th in a series of short features on small businesses responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Tipton & Hurst hasn’t allowed in-store shoppers at any of its five locations for nearly three weeks, following the lead of similar businesses in bigger cities, said President and CEO Howard Hurst. 

The 134-year-old florist hasn’t withered away either; it’s offering free no-contact delivery and pick-up services in central Arkansas. 

About 70 employees are working from stores in Little Rock, Pine Bluff and Conway. Stores at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock and in North Little Rock are closed.

"I'm glad the governor has allowed us to continue. I know some places they've shut down completely, but … some of that's a little bit unfair because, let's be real, you can order for delivery from Amazon in New York City right now," Hurst said. "What makes them better than, you know, the local people? Are they just better at it? I mean, they've got drivers. … Let these people, if you deliver and you're safe, continue."

While deliveries are starting to return to normal as people buy arrangements to cheer up isolated loved ones, Hurst figures sales have dropped by half or more due to the pandemic. Particularly painful: more than 300 wedding and other event cancellations, which has prompted refunds to those customers. But Hurst has other lines of business, from funeral arrangements, gifts and accessories to — at the moment — Easter baskets.

"So we do a lot of things, which probably allows us to be a little more reactive and pivot. … And so much of our stuff is web-oriented, you know, on our website," Hurst said. His business put all its systems and software in the cloud in October, meaning so much more of its operations can be done off-site. 

Tipton & Hurst has applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to avoid laying off its regular workers. Some workers are at a higher risk of serious complications from the virus, so they’ve been sent home and are being paid at a reduced rate, Hurst said. People who are running deliveries and pickups are being paid slightly more. "So it should balance out," he said.

Hurst said his business had also been affected by a COVID-19 caused disruption in the supply chain. But his company is in a better position than most because it buys directly from growers. Inventory is not an issue, he said.

"So what we're trying to do is show all that stuff on social media, put it all on our website, and we’re hoping that people will go look and buy," he said.

Hurst said Tipton & Hurst is "trying to do our part all across the board" while meeting the needs of its customers — needs that include receiving flowers or plants that cheer them up.

"People are really depressed," he said, "It's just the business we're in, it's very uplifting, and so we're happy to do that."

Looking ahead, Hurst expects to put many items on sale, and he hopes that what happened after the last pandemic and World War 100 years ago will happen again: the roaring '20s.

"The economy went crazy at that point. So let's hope that happens," he said, adding that Tipton & Hurst will be prepared to respond to demand when this crisis ends.

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