NJ Businesses Discuss Loss, Future With Reopening Committee

Small business owners and representatives hit the New Jersey Senate Fiscal Recovery Strategists Committee with some daunting numbers during a Zoom conference Tuesday, which the lawmakers hosted to speak publicly with businesses affected by COVID-19 shutdowns.

New car sales have dropped 70 to 80 percent for April year over year as a result of New Jersey’s stay at home order, and May 2020 sales are expected to be just slightly north of half of May 2019’s, but New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers Jim Appleton told lawmakers Tuesday that this has been a time of lessons learned.

“If there is a silver lining here, it’s that consumers and retailers are becoming more comfortable with online shopping with cars,” Appleton said during the Zoom hearing hosted by Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-36th District.

Market research shows that older consumers, the most acquisitive and reliable consumers in the car sales world, according to Appleton, “stayed away in droves in the lockdown.” But now, car dealerships are sharpening their online services, and issues have been unearthed within the Motor Vehicle Commission’s online system that can now be addressed.

John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, told the committee that retail sales are down across almost the entire board: Health stores are down 10 percent, general merchandise stores are down 13 percent; sporting goods store sales are down 48 percent; electronics, 64 percent; upholstery and appliance, 66 percent; and most dramatically, clothing and accessory store sales are down 89 percent.

“It’s been a very uneven impact,” Holub said. “Obviously certain retail categories have been decimated [while] others have been okay, if you can even say that. It’s critically important that we reopen our main streets.”

Small business owners and association representatives took turns explaining the economic impact on their industries to the lawmakers on the Zoom conference as lawmakers asked them questions.

The committee, comprised of Sens. Troy Singleton, D-7th District; Steve Oroho, R-24th District; and President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz, in addition to Sarlo, is tasked with developing a plan to reopen New Jersey’s economy safely as the COVID-19 crisis progresses toward an end.

According to a recent survey by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, 71 percent of businesses say they can openly safely and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Many of them, however, still don’t know when they’ll be allowed to open their doors.

“We need to know if we are within 10 percent of the goal post or are we still 50 percent out?” said NJBIA President Michele Siekerka. “No business can sit and do a business plan when you don’t know when you are opening and how you’re opening.”

Singleton asked multiple industry representatives about their experience acquiring the personal protective equipment, or PPE, that will be required for them to conduct business moving forward.

For Frank Rizzieri, owner of Rizzieri Spa and Salon, which has three salons and a beauty school in South Jersey and locations in other states, acquiring PPE has meant going to multiple suppliers to get all that’s necessary.

“We started back in March to acquire basic PPE products, and what we’re finding is you can’t go to one supplier. You get some masks from one, some from another, some hand sanitizer,” Rizzieri said. “We’ve been able to acquire a good bit of PPE, but our suppliers aren’t able to keep adequate inventory…”

The cost of PPE per client is $5.40, Rizzieri said. Masks used to be 10 cents apiece, and now they’re $1.25 each.

Singleton noted that while Rizzieri might not have had issues getting PPE, smaller players might. This is where the state can step in, he explained, and be able to source and provide the PPE to the businesses.

He also posed a question to Appleton about the possibility of testing car dealership employees, to which Appleton shared the great expense it could be: “We don’t know what the protocols will be. We don’t know which test, and at what expense …i t could cost an average size dealer as much as $3,000 a day to do this kind of testing, and I’m not sure that’s economically feasible.”

Small businesses need guidance from government and timelines to work with, said Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey President Christina Renna.

Using shore restaurants as an example, Renna mentioned how a boardwalk pizza place that can’t have guests inside doesn’t know whether or not it can allow people to sit on the picnic tables in front of the restaurant.

Timelines are crucial too, she said, as small retailers can’t “flip the switch over night” and go back to business as usual. They need to restock their shelves, need time to train people, and need time to prepare.

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