How should indie retailers prepare to reopen under the now normal?

@_eliseyy via Twenty20
May 08, 2020

By Rich Kizer and Georganne Bender, Kizer & Bender

One day retailers were focused on implementing new ways to thrill customers, enhance the in-store experience, and then bam! COVID-19 changed everything. We aren’t living in the new normal. Not yet. We’re still deep into the now normal where things change daily and retailers need to be prepared as they reopen stores.

Reopening guidelines for states, communities and sometimes towns right next to one another have different rules. Advice from consultants is all over the place. One suggested retailers remove all merchandise from the sales floor and set up a showroom featuring a sample of each item instead. We wondered if this particular consultant had ever stepped foot in an actual store’s stock room?

There are changes retailers need to make as they prepare to reopen:

  1. Check state and county/community guidelines continuously because they update frequently. You could get hit with heavy fines for social distancing violations.
  2. Ready your team. Determine who is coming back and who isn’t, then schedule training on how business will be conducted before you reopen your doors. Everyone needs to understand their role and what is expected with new health and safety rules.
  3. Prepare a written plan to share with associates and customers on how you will care for their health and safety. Provide associates with the PPE needed to do their jobs. Think masks, rubber gloves, hand sanitizers, wipes, etc. and be ready to replace and replenish these items as needed. Consider making paper masks available to shoppers who don’t bring their own. Determine to what degree social distancing can be practiced while shopping in your store. Best Buy has implemented a plan to open by appointment.
  4. Set your sales floor to sell. Customers build perceptions in 10 seconds or less upon entering a store — good or bad, these perceptions stick. Retailers cannot afford to stumble here. Change product on the front display fixtures weekly — yes, even while the store is closed. Change those displays again just before you reopen for business. Pay special attention to your front power walls and merchandise outposts and cross-merchandise everywhere you can.

Reopening a store after the COVID-19 forced shutdown is similar to your first grand opening, but with a lot more rules. Take your time and get it right. You don’t have to reopen the second your state says it’s okay, but when you do, be ready to serve your customers safely in new and different ways.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What advice would have for independent stores as they reopen to ensure safety, follow regulations, effectively merchandise and sell products? What suggestions would you add to those offered in the article?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"This time is creating community, and a community-owned retailer will have an advantage."
"Indie retailers will need to strive to convey friendliness and product enthusiasm even when just doing curbside pickup."
"All retailers are finding their way, but indies don’t have a corporate team and attorneys on staff to guide them as they prepare to reopen, they are on their own."

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21 Comments on "How should indie retailers prepare to reopen under the now normal?"

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Shep Hyken

Your customers have to trust you. That includes your products, your service AND THEIR SAFETY! Follow the regulations and guidelines put in place. Proactively let your customers know that their health and safety is more important than anything. It’s that simple.

Paula Rosenblum

I think consumers are going to cleave even more towards independent retailers, particularly for apparel. Malls are going to be problematic for some time and social distancing will prove challenging.

So I think this is a great opportunity for the independent retailer to shine and gather more sales.

It goes without saying that guidelines should be followed and employees should be trained and serious about the situation. Along with that, the floor should be open and sales-ready. For sure. This time is creating community, and a community-owned retailer will have an advantage.

Peter Charness

I”m not sure why, but I also think indies are going to do better, particularly street-based stores (I’m not so keen to run out to the mall quite yet). But location aside, supporting the indies feels right. I think a sense of community is easier to establish if you aren’t a large chain owned and operated from afar.

Cathy Hotka

The Store Operations Council’s Reopening Retail Safely document has 15 pages of recommendations from dozens of retailers and analysts. One issue we’re still seeing, though, is staying abreast of changing regulations from thousands of jurisdictions from around the country. It’s a tall order.

Dave Bruno

I am hearing the same thing from my clients, Cathy: keeping up with national, regional, and local regulations is a nightmare, and it’s especially challenging for multi-nationals. One client, with stores only in the U.S., has dedicated two corporate FTEs to the task — and they are struggling to keep up. Several have established store “hotlines” with direct 24/7 access to corporate executives to help their store managers navigate the spider’s web of rules and challenges. They all tell me they don’t expect this issue to fade away any time soon, either.

Georganne Bender

Everything changes so quickly. You almost need to assign someone to keep up with what’s required.

Suresh Chaganti

Indie stores should expand their visibility and reach so that they are less dependent on foot traffic and drive-by customers. This means creating online catalogs, compelling product photography, detailed product descriptions, investing in search and local listings, delivery partnerships with Deliv, Shipt — Essentially just about anything from marketing, sales and delivery that is fit for much fewer footfalls.

They should think of their retail storefront as a showroom, not necessarily as the only channel to do sales.

Bob Amster

I believe that customers and owners/associates of the indies are going to spend quite a bit of extra time in conversation, each recounting “the troubles I’ve seen,” getting re-acquainted and, by definition, building stronger relationships.

Dick Seesel

At least indie retailers have the advantage of one set of local (or state) guidelines to follow, instead of 50 different protocols. The key is to ensure the safety of associates and customers entering the store; unless shoppers feel safe, they won’t shop. There was discussion when this morning’s jobs report came out that states doing “early reopening” are not seeing the kind of resurgence in store and restaurant business they were expecting — but is that really a surprise? For all the publicity about resistance to wearing masks, this is going to have to be accepted behavior for awhile.

Mark Price

The focus for independent retailers has always been to differentiate themselves based on relationships with and knowledge of their customers. In this time, it is critical that the smaller retailers work hard to continue to reinforce the relationship that they have with their customers and what makes them different from big box and e-commerce retailers. Authenticity, flexibility and care for their customers needs to be present in every aspect of customer interaction. In this way independent retailers can not only survive this crisis, but emerge even stronger.

Phil Chang

Striking a good balance of safety and consumer interest is going to be critical. I think that how you merchandise will be key – i.e. making sure that display space is dedicated to those that want to get in/out quickly. Making sure that you’ve done the work to know that you’re using merchandise space for the very best of your assortment is going to be really important. While these things seem trivial, this will help small retailers gain back profitability quickly while striking some important consumer moments to inspire return visits.

Scott Norris

Two excellent examples from the Twin Cities: our favorite bakery, Sarah Jane’s, limits customers in-store to only 4 people. They taped off 6-ft squares on the sidewalk outside in such a way that as you wait to enter, you still get a great view of their cases so that you know exactly what you want when you come inside. (I dropped $54 there last Saturday!) Second, the florist at the end of our block changed their front window into an attractive gallery of each type of merchandise they carry — live flower baskets yes, but also clothing, jewelry, and home décor — each with a descriptive card and price tag; again so the customer can “shop” outside and come in with a list of specific items to purchase.

Brandon Rael

One of the few silver linings to come out of this crisis is that the indie retailers, who are already closely tied to the communities they serve, will draw more traffic and interest as the economy picks up momentum. Their close connections to the local communities and adherence to the health, safety rules and regulations will make the shopping experience safer and more secure, all while enabling consumers to support the indie retailers who desperately need our support.

As we move from a globalization model to a shopping model that is more localized, personalized, and connected to the community, we may yet see a renaissance of the indie retail shopping experience.

Georganne Bender

Having a written plan of action is so important because the rules continue to change. The big discussion this week with retail clients has been all about masks and how to handle the new rules. Even in states where it is mandated the onus is on the retailer to reinforce the mandate – they have a responsibility to keep both employees and customers safe, yet some customers aren’t willing to play nice. Clear signage on the door about what is expected once you enter a store is so important.

All retailers are finding their way, but indies don’t have a corporate team and attorneys on staff to guide them as they prepare to reopen, they are on their own. There’s a lot of stress out there. Customers want a “normal” shopping experience; retailers are still navigating muddy waters.

Ryan Mathews
It all depends on what form of retail they are engaged in, how many markets they operate in, and where those markets are located. Best practices for a hat shop in Wyoming are a lot different than a bodega in the middle of Brooklyn. So the first, obvious step is to make sure you are in compliance with all existing and emergency regulations and guidelines. The other ideas outlined in the article are all “need to do” rather than “nice to do.” I guess my “add” would be that it is more critical to take care of your associates — even at the expense of your customers. If customers are expected to wear masks, they ought to be compelled to wear a mask, gloves, whatever or not allowed in. This not only will make associates feel more secure, it will make compliant customers feel more secure. Bottom line: don’t be afraid to lose a few if it helps you secure the majority. The other piece that is missing here is crafting the right tone and… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

As the retail food industry (Including all sectors: grocery, QSR, fine dining, c-stores, etc.) has done food safety and sanitation awareness for both staff and customers to create a sense of security in their establishments for decades, retailers of every sector need to create an internal (staff) and external (shopper) plan to exhibit a sense of safety in their stores that include all of those tactics mentioned, as well as common sense guidelines that may well last into perpetuity.

Jasmine Glasheen

I’m in San Diego, where we just opened for curbside pickup on non-essential purchases today. But it’s easy for the in-store shopping experience to feel eerie in “the now normal.” It’s important to bring back associates that are not only able to follow social distancing/sanitization guidelines, but also able to convey friendliness and enthusiasm despite the strange state of affairs.

Frantic and harried is disorienting, and it’s not going to work with non-essential purchases. Since the advent of e-commerce, brick and mortar stores have needed to give customers a reason to leave their homes. Indie retailers will need to strive to convey friendliness and product enthusiasm even when just doing curbside pickup.

Doug Garnett

Restrictions should be made politely, firmly, and visibly. When the store allows people to “cut corners” (especially staff), customers notice very quickly and either pass around the bad news to their friends or they take it further and further until your store has no rules.

What I notice especially is staff frustrated with masks. I’d recommend stores establish clear policies allowing staff to take breaks if they need to escape from the mask for a bit so they do that out of sight of the customers.

For many, masks and floor markings are important for their function, but they may be far more important as signals that your store is well managed, paying attention, and respectful. These are statements any store needs to make right now.

Craig Sundstrom

My advice: err on the side of caution. I think this may be one of those rare situations where indies have an advantage, or at least an equal footing with chains in that the regs are likely to vary a lot between states (and in some cases within states) and the fewer directives one has to deal with the better.

Good luck folks and (as Sergeant Esterehaus used to say) “let’s be careful out there!”

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Many small retailers are having trouble obtaining the number of masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies needed to reopen so they need to postpone their opening. If they were immersed in the pre-Covid direction of providing experiences for consumers, then they have to determine how to do that effectively with social distancing and constant cleaning. Reopening is a new environment and retailers need to think what the new store will be.

Mike Osorio

There are excellent resources available to indie retailers via NRF and other industry bodies, along with Federal, State and local published guidelines. While I agree there is a lot of competing and confusing noise out there, a bit of Google search can bring any independent retailer what they need to ensure the basics are in place to ensure compliance for employee and customer safety.

I agree with the statements supporting the positive opportunity for local indies to thrive as we begin re-opening as a large percentage of consumers are in the mindset of favoring local businesses of all types. The key is to both provide a high level of service with compelling products in-store, as well as a hard pivot to DTC selling via owned websites, IG & FB paid advertising, as well as Amazon and other multi-brand platforms. With the aid of PPP and other loan & grant programs, indies need to spend into both in-store and digital customer engagement.

"This time is creating community, and a community-owned retailer will have an advantage."
"Indie retailers will need to strive to convey friendliness and product enthusiasm even when just doing curbside pickup."
"All retailers are finding their way, but indies don’t have a corporate team and attorneys on staff to guide them as they prepare to reopen, they are on their own."

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