Gulf Coast merchants are re-opening their doors with new measures in place to battle the coronavirus.
Closing wasn’t easy.
Sales at David Jackson’s Fleet Feet store in Sarasota plunged 85% from a year ago after he made the decision to follow the chain’s guidance and governmental direction to move sales exclusively online, with limited at-store pickup, in mid-March.
“We were in nothing less than panic mode,” says Jackson, a Fleet Feet franchisee whose company also operates another four athletic shoe and apparel and gift stores in the Sarasota area.
In Bradenton, meanwhile, anxiety at Bealls Inc. also mounted with each passing March day, culminating in a shutdown of more than 500 locations in multiple states on the 20th of the month.
“As the crisis took hold, we began to fully understand the risks and that this was very serious and unprecedented,” says Dave Alves, president of Bealls Retail Group, which operates apparel specialty stores and an outlet division. “In all of my years in retail, I’d never had to make the decision to close down an entire chain before.”
Across the Gulf Coast, retailers and restauranteurs ranging from mom-and-pop operators to national chains are grappling with how and when to re-open their stores and the new protocols that will be required to be in place for merchandising going forward.
More than a few retailers have succumbed. Luxury department store chain Neiman Marcus has sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors, citing sales lost amid the pandemic, as did fast-casual restaurant chain Steak ‘n Shake in announcing plans to close 57 outlets.
Department store operator Nordstrom Inc. also has unveiled plans to shutter 16 of its upscale stores, among the more high-profile of chains seeking to mitigate the damage wrought by the novel coronavirus.
For many, though, re-opening has been just as difficult.
Jackson spent the downtime at his stores wiping down surfaces with disinfectant, adding floor stickers and signage to help navigate around the boutiques and training staff.
Bealls went further, ordering plexiglass to install at cashier checkouts, initiating one-way routes for customers together with six-foot markers for social distancing and monitoring fellow retailers like Home Depot Inc. and Publix Super Markets Inc. for operational tips.
It also took the initiative to procure gloves and face masks for all store employees and brought managers in during the closure to train them on policy changes.
Both the boutique operator and the national chain have had to deal with a common frustration as they’ve struggled to re-open.
“My biggest challenge has been in finding adequate cleaning supplies,” Jackson says. “You can’t find a Clorox wipe to kill the virus today, anywhere.”
“Finding enough hand sanitizer for all of our stores has been nearly impossible,” Alves says. “And we’ve been working very diligently to procure enough paper towels and cleaning supplies that we know we’ll need.”
When Fleet Feet re-opened its doors on May 4, it did so with several tangible operational changes in place.
Employees wore masks at all times, and asked customers to do the same while shopping. It mandated that customers remain six feet apart from others – including employees. The store also prohibited cash transactions and mandated that customers not touch any of the merchandise they wished to buy.
“The idea was to have as little contact as possible on multiple levels,” Jackson says.
When Bealls opened up the first pair of its stores with reduced hours following the government-directed shutdown, in Oklahoma on April 17, it also put in place numerous new rules that would impact both employees and customers alike.
Most noticeable was the decision to close fitting rooms altogether to stem the spread of the virus.
Other, unexpected issues arose, as well, such as whether stores would accept returns from customers.
“We knew we had to think first and foremost about the guest experience and their safety along with that of our staff.” Alves says. “So we debated whether or not we should accept returns, which are a big part of our shopping experience. Ultimately, we decided that we would, provided that we also keep any merchandise that comes back to us off the shelf for 48 hours for safety.”
In some cases, Bealls kept stores dark if it was unable to implement all of its new safety measures or have new equipment in place.
The chain reopened 90% of its 525 stores nationwide in mid-May. Some locations, in Phoenix and Atlanta and in a few places in Florida, remained closed.
The stores that are open will operate with reduced hours for the foreseeable future, Alves says.
“For now, we’re certainly able to operate and we’re able to do what we need in the hours that we have, being respectful of the fact that the virus is still out there and still a potential threat,” he says.
Both Alves and Jackson say that despite the limited shopping hours and the new protocols in place, sales are up.
Fleet Feet’s sales have risen nearly by half, with a lot of its growth coming from new customers.
“We’ve been somewhat shocked, because sales have been more robust than we thought they would be at this juncture,” Jackson says. “The biggest, and most pleasant, surprise has been that we’ve seen a lot of new customers.”
“We planned for the worst but we’ve seen some very healthy returns in activity,” Alves says. “Bets of all, people have told us they feel safe in our stores with all that we’ve done. We’re very happy about that.”
The future remains murky, however. Both Alves and Jackson anticipate that COVID-19-inspired changes will be part of the retail landscape for a long time to come.
Jackson says he’s taking re-opening “one week at a time” and plans to err on the side of caution.
“I think for the next six months or so you’re going to see us in the stores with masks on,” he says. “Because if that’s what it takes to keep our customers and our staff safe, then the masks will stay on. The way I see it, if people get sick, we’re out of business, so we’re going to do all we can to prevent that from happening moving forward.”
“We know this is going to be with us for a long time,” Alves says. “And some of these protocols we expect will be in place from now on.”