LIHU‘E — After 37 years on Kaua‘i, Kaua‘i Floors is closing its doors this month.
“We decided to retire,” said owner Cece Fern, “but we were pushed into the decision by a sagging local economy. We’re not a necessity item like food and gas. It’s easy to postpone home projects. It’s sad a lot of momma and poppa businesses are going away or working with a skeleton crew.”
Little by little in recent years, Fern and her husband, George, have downsized their operation from being the largest floor covering store on the island.
“We started as a union shop, doing a lot of commercial work and a lot of residential work,” she said. “We would sell and install all phases of flooring, from carpets to area rugs and vinyl flooring. We were young then and had a friend who was a partner of my husband’s in San Francisco.”
In San Francisco, her husband did an apprenticeship and eventually became an installer. Then one day, a friend invited them to move over to Kaua‘i.
In 1975, when they were in their 20s, they opened a shop on Rice Street called Island Floors, and their business grew, Fern said. Years later, they changed their business name to Kaua‘i Floors because their original name was being confused with a store in Honolulu.
They became part of a buying group called Abbey Carpet & Floors, a franchise that is individually owned.
“It gave us nationwide buyer power, meaning greater selection and more competitive pricing. It used to be that everyone had to order from Honolulu, and their choice was between beige and brown and four shades in between,” Fern said.
“Flooring is all my husband has ever done,” she said. “He helped to create an interest locally in flooring. We could offer a broad selection, and George could do things nobody else on island could do or had thought about doing, like curving vinyl flooring up a wall.”
After nearly 10 years on Rice Street, they relocated to Lihu‘e Industrial Park for more warehouse space.
At their peak in the 1980s and 1990s, Kaua‘i Floors had six employees because of increased demand caused by hurricanes.
“The two hurricanes were a real interesting time,” Fern said. “Everyone needed a new floor, so we were bombarded with people needing insurance bids. I closed at 2 p.m. every day, just so I could process the paperwork.”
Of course, orders dropped off after the recovery from Iniki, but work was steady up until about eight to 10 years ago, she said, after Home Depot opened.
“A lot of momma and poppa businesses are having a hard time these days,” she said. “There’s competition from national chains like Home Depot that put pressure on them. The construction slump has also contributed to it, definitely. There was a huge drop off in 2008, when the economy crashed.”
The cost of Kaua‘i Floors’ inventory has also continually increased in recent years with the rising cost of oil.
“In the olden days, we would get one or two price increases a year,” Fern said. “There was a time four or five years ago, we were getting increases every two months, when oil prices went up. Carpet and other flooring is made with petroleum-based products, so it’s not just the shipping cost.”
Now, at 65, she’s cutting and hauling materials because the shop cannot afford to keep a staff.
“I’m getting older, and I don’t see that it will be getting better anytime soon,” she said. But they didn’t put their business up for sale. “Nobody would want it, because it’s not showing much profit.”
Fortunately, the Ferns didn’t go into debt during tough times.
“We had saved enough to carry us through,” she said.
Having satisfied their lease with their “wonderful landlord” several years ago, they have nothing holding them back now except their memories and a large amount of inventory to liquidate.
“Sometimes things just don’t work out like you thought with long-range plans,” Fern said. “Retirement is going to be a whole new adventure for us.”
Kaua‘i Floors is located at 2956 Aukele St. in Lihu‘e Industrial Park 2. Call 245-3503 for store hours and information.
Fern said the store will probably be open through March because everything must go, even the forklift and office equipment.