The new coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the local economy, and some hard-hit industries may take years to recover.
At the same time, the pandemic has also created new opportunities, and businesses in Williamson County are taking advantage of them.
The Brentwood retailer Tractor Supply Company often thrives during disasters. In the fall, customers in the path of hurricanes rely on the store to fortify their homes before storms and repair them afterwards. Cold winters, flooding or tornadoes can also bring in more customers.
However, in early 2020 it looked like the coronavirus disaster might hurt the company as many retail stores started to close down across the U.S.
Instead, the coronavirus proved to be more like a hurricane. Customers went to Tractor Supply stores — which mostly remained open as an essential service — to prep their homes for sustained lockdowns. As social distancing and working from home continued into the summer, customers went to Tractor Supply to improve their yards and living rooms, where they were now spending a lot more time.
“In the spring, customers were buying lawnmowers and kayaks and working in their yard on their fencing and their gates,” CEO Hal Lawton said on a conference call last month. “We think in the fall, some of that will continue, but instead of lawnmowers and kayaks, they're going to shift to buying things like patio heaters and firewood and fire pits, but they're still going to be working on their land and on their homes.”
In response to the increased demand, Tractor Supply launched a nationwide hiring drive, and brought on 5,000 new employees between April and June.
The company created a new greeter position to hand out masks to customers coming inside and make sure they felt comfortable shopping during a pandemic. That role has morphed into a cleaning role now that most customers are familiar with COVID safety measures.
Vice President of Human Resources Brian Evans said Tractor Supply is also hiring workers for its call center in Brentwood.
"It's based on the volume. Some of it's COVID related. People want to know what are store hours are, how does curbside delivery work, questions they might have about masks," he said.
The number of new business starts has plunged since the start of the pandemic, but some local entrepreneurs are also finding opportunities for small businesses during this crisis.
Late last year, Kevin Line, who used to travel often for work, created a portable rock climbing training device to stay fit on the road. The device temporarily attaching rock climbing holds to any doorway without damaging it.
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“I thought, I'll make a few. We'll put a website together. We'll advertise a little bit and we'll see what happens,” he said. “We had a few sales ... but as as soon as the lockdowns started it was meteoric.”
Line and his family members still make and ship the devices from home, but as more people find out about the product he says he may have to expand to keep up with the demand. He’s also thinking about expanding into new portable fitness products for cross fit athletes or adventure athletes.
“I think a lot of people were stuck and they didn't feel like they could do anything. They didn't feel like they could connect with the community that they love or the sports they love,” he said. “I think that was the driver behind people finding this product.”
Earlier this year, Jennifer Stine, who previously worked as a marketing consultant, decided to start a business that helps customers find clothes that fit perfectly.
The company, called FixxMyFit, asks customers to measure their favorite items of clothing and then matches them with new clothes based on measurements uploaded by retailers. Ultimately, the goal is to build a personal database of perfectly fitting clothes for users and connect companies with new customers.
Her businesses was in the proof-of-concept phase when the coronavirus led to widespread shutdowns. That made it hard to gather focus groups to workshop her business idea, but also made it easier land meetings with CEOs at existing clothing brands, who were scrambling to find new ideas and new partners.
“I'm getting conversations that I would have had to work much harder to get (before the pandemic)," she said.
Stine said the coronavirus is simply accelerating trends, such as increased personalization, that were already happening in the retail industry. She believes her business is poised to take advantage of those trends.
“It became really clear that COVID was going to change the retail industry much faster than I saw it happening over the last two or three years,” she said.
When she started working on the business in earnest late last year, she said she never could have predicted what would happen, but ultimately it may giver her business a boost.
“The circumstances that have been created by COVID, where you can't even try clothes on … I never had the foresight to know that was going to happen,” she said. “But it has made what my product is even more powerful and even more needed.”