CHANDLER, AZ --   Small businesses can more usually shift gears more easily than large ones.  CK Valenti Designs in Chandler, AZ, has done just that in the wake of the pandemic. The company has developed a specialty niche in recent years, thanks to a surprise visit from a museum director looking for a shop that could help him design and create beautiful and functional displays, fixtures, etc. for a new museum.   When it became clear that COVID-19 was spreading in the U.S. owner, Chris Valenti, shut down the shop and sent his employees home. As he began to hear more about recommendations for stopping the spread of the virus, one item caught his attention: Plastic barriers and sneeze guards could provide some physical protection at still-open essential businesses. Valenti will be a panelist on the Cabinet Makers Association panel, “Diversifying Your Business: Think Outside the (Cabinet) Box” on Tuesday, May 19 at 11 a.m. Central. 
 
“I started seeing on Instagram that demand for these was sprouting up,” Valenti says. “We’ve been fabricating with plastic for years now, and I thought ‘We can make these. We have the equipment, and we’ve worked with this material before.’”  Valenti made what he calls a “Mini-Me” prototype and for purposes of shopping the idea around, he took a photo that made the prototype appear to be larger. He then shared it with a client, a local government agency that had mentioned its need for barriers; that agency was his first buyer.  He began brainstorming about other businesses that may need them, and decided to follow up with a contact he had with local car dealerships. That turned into sales of about 70-80 units of a one-piece barrier design. One employee came back to help Valenti with the project.
 
Wood Pro Expo Live will be held Tuesday, May 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Central.  Cabinets & Closets Live will be held the following day, Wednesday, May 20, also from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Central.
The next step in the project’s evolution came when he realized that the design was not shipper-friendly if they wanted to send them out of state to far-flung buyers.   “I came up with a three-piece knock-down version,” Valenti says. His wife had sold items on the website Etsy in the past and suggested that they promote the shields on Etsy and see what happened.   At first, nothing happened. Then they had an epiphany, remembering the psychological power of the words “free shipping.” Once they offered free shipping for the COVID-19 barriers, the orders began rolling in.  “Now we’re close to 900 units sold,” Valenti says. “We closed the Etsy store on a Sunday because we couldn’t keep up, and we were running low on materials. I got more materials in, we re-opened Tuesday, and it took back off again. Now we’re getting custom orders.”
 
It was a no-brainer in a way. “We’re using the same suppliers and the same equipment – it’s just a different application,” he says.  The COVID-19 barriers project has enabled CK Valenti Design to generate income in a safe way while its normal operations are down.
 
“Two months ago, we put a halt on operations because from a safety perspective, I didn’t want to be in proximity to people we don’t know while out doing projects,” Valenti says. “In short, it was the whole social distancing concern. The barrier project lets me and one other guy work in the shop, and that other person has stayed isolated as well. We don’t have to install the barriers, so we don’t leave the shop.”   When local buyers come to get their orders, he and his employee put on masks and gloves, and the buyers picked up their shields outside the shop.   “With shipping, FedEx and UPS pick up at the shop, we’re minimizing our contact,” Valenti says. “I’m not going to say it’s 100 percent, but it really allows us to stay isolated. The doors are locked, so we don’t have any comings and goings.”
 
While their museum work has gone away due to museums closing down, residential clients have been in touch. “We have gone back out into the field on a few occasions, and we’ve told general contractors and the homeowners we work for that no one else can be onsite when we’re there,” he says. “If anyone argues against that, it’s just ignorance.
“We’re taking our time getting back into this,” Valenti says. “As a small business owner, I can’t afford to be sick. I’m a healthy person, but even if I could fight it off, I don’t want to bring it home to my six-year-old and my two-year-old. Seeing these flare-ups we’re experiencing in Arizona is a reminder that we’ve got to play it safe.”

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