How should stores reopen?

Temperature checks at a Starbucks location in Chengdu, China - Feb. 2020 - Photo: Getty Images/caoyu36
Apr 21, 2020
Tom Ryan

In a letter to employees, Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson last Thursday said the coffee chain plans to employ a “monitor and adapt” strategy as it reopens stores amid a declining number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases.

In the same manner as the chain has done in China as that nation recovered, Starbucks’ locations in the U.S. “will gradually expand and shift the customer experiences we enable in our stores.” Some will continue as drive-thru only, others may focus on contactless pickup and delivery and others may reopen for “to-go” ordering, he said.

Overall, about half of Starbucks’ locations in the U.S. are currently operating and many are drive-through only, according to CNBC.

But Mr. Johnson added that the decision on when and how to open is “a human one.” As such, the company has set up a dashboard featuring government data on cases and COVID-19 trends to help with decision making at the individual store level by field leaders, which include store managers and district managers. “While dozens of factors help inform the decisions, our field leaders look at four factors: the local status of the public health crisis, guidance from health and government officials, community sentiment and store operational readiness,” wrote Mr. Johnson.

Staff will have to be trained on any updated safety procedures before reopening. In China, Starbucks requires temperature checks for guests and gloves for staff. In the U.S., employees had already been told to wash their hands every 30 minutes and to sanitize heavily-touched areas “ideally every eight minutes, but no more than 30.”

The preparations come amid an increasingly politically-charged debate on when to reduce stay-at-home restrictions on businesses to help the economy. Last Thursday, The White House issued guidelines for businesses to reopen, but left it up to each state’s governor to decide. Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina are already making moves to ease stay-at-home orders within the next two weeks.

Without being able to screen employees and customers for the virus, Americans won’t be “confident enough to return to work, eat at restaurants or shop in retail establishments,” business executives told the president last Wednesday, according to The Wall Street Journal.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think it is a wise move to have store managers and district managers make the decisions on when and how individual stores and food establishments reopen? What hurdles will businesses face as they explore reopening?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Retailers are creating individual, multi-faceted plans without the proper expertise or supplies, yet with accountability (and liability) for outcomes."
"Store and district managers need to base their decisions on data and testing availability, not personal politics."
"I think HR and Legal should be behind ALL of this. They shut us down (wisely) — and they should be the ones behind when and how we open back up."

Join the Discussion!

36 Comments on "How should stores reopen?"

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Neil Saunders

Reopening should be based on health and scientific data. This will inevitably mean a patchwork approach with outlets in some locations opening earlier than in others. Don’t expect reopened stores to return to normal right away. Social distancing measures, policies to protect staff and customers, and other restrictions will likely be in place for some time to come.

The biggest challenge? Making staff and customers feel safe. That will take time and a lot of effort.


Reopening should be based on and in compliance with health care experts and data, but it requires the coordination of several functional disciplines to reopen a store. We should not expect a public health official to declare when a store can reopen. We should expect public health officials to determine the criteria necessary for safe operation of a store and the community health conditions necessary to relax shelter in home orders.

But retailers and brands should hold their operations department responsible to develop or modify practices in their stores to comply with public health requirements. HR needs to provide guidance to employees on working practices. Local managers need to know what procedures to enforce. PR needs to know what data can and should be shared.

All of the above apply to determining when to close a store again and then subsequently reopen it.

Dick Seesel

It’s tempting for individual store or district managers to reopen their locations in order to ring the register — and to rehire employees who need the work, of course. But these decisions can’t be made in a vacuum outside of state and local decisionmakers and without the benefit of public health data.

While political pressure is growing to speed the rate of reopenings, any public-facing business needs to tread carefully. It’s not only critical to follow the science, but also to ensure that new protocols are in place after the stores reopen. The downside of “getting it wrong” is a shutdown that could last for months longer.

Dave Bruno

What, exactly, is happening here? Am I missing something? Or is Starbucks in fact entrusting potentially life-or-death decisions for customers and employees to the gut instincts of their local store teams? Please, somebody, tell me I am missing something.

Georganne Bender

If you are Dave, then I am, too. Makes no sense.

Zach Zalowitz

I too was a little confused why we were even asking this question (not a shot at RW, rather if this is actually a question retailers are asking).

Richard Hernandez

I like the monitor and adapt strategy that Starbucks will implement.
It will be interesting to see how Starbucks implements the training, the understanding, and the practice of social distancing. Normally there are too many people occupying all the tables and chairs- I would think this would have to be reduced considerably when they reopen the shop. I also think that people will be more vigilant (customers and employees) when someone isn’t social distancing or following cleaning and hygienic standards. I am wondering how my gym will follow social distancing when it opens…


I would only add that, based on the article above, Starbucks should institute national compliance requirements to guide local managers. This can’t be left entirely to local management. I doubt it is. But it is not clear what the fourth criteria really means, “store operational readiness.” That probably means that a store can comply with corporate safety guidelines.

Georganne Bender

No one in their right mind would leave the decision to reopen stores to a manager or district manager. This is a decision that needs to be made by doctors and scientists, people who know what it will take to keep us safe, not everyday citizens who are not qualified and cannot possibly see the big picture.

Bob Phibbs

Starbucks and Nike have extensive experience with this from China. I tend to trust their approach. I doubt there are going to be rogue managers opening to try to meet sales quotas. And I’m sure there are others who sign off as well. One of the hurdles will be employees suddenly realizing they are “on the front line” and they may simple not want to return – especially if they are making more on unemployment than the retailer usually pays.

Ben Ball

Executives and politicians shouldn’t make declarative statements about what “all” people will do or how they will feel. The reality is that some people will be comfortable and anxious to return to restaurants and other entertainment venues while others won’t — at least not at first. Given the history of inaccuracies in our science which, granted, is driven by the complete lack of knowledge of this particular strain, Starbucks’ approach to reopening is probably as good as any. An overabundance of sanitation and caution coupled with the flexibility to push forward or pull back is a sensible strategy for both health and economic survival.

Carol Spieckerman

In the absence of a comprehensive national plan (at least here in the U.S.), these decisions become yet another “for” or “against” issue. Retailers are creating individual, multi-faceted plans without the proper expertise or supplies, yet with accountability (and liability) for outcomes. In the meantime, a steady flow of protests, backlash, and lawsuits can be expected. I would call Starbucks’ plan one of false empowerment and downright foolhardy at this juncture.

Zach Zalowitz

You’re absolutely correct Carol. Well said!

Bob Amster

Well said. No need to add…

Jeff Sward

Regionalizing the “OK to open” process makes sense, as long as medical and health guidelines are followed. It’s great if regions that are normalizing sooner than others can open sooner than others. But when a whole state, like Georgia, wants to open while their curve is still ascending, much less not waiting for the 14 consecutive days of descending cases, that’s going to create a high probability of a rebound in cases. Everybody wants to open sooner than later. But if we are learning lessons at the detail level of re-opening execution, let’s also learn the more macro lessons about what happens when re-opening happens too quickly.

Liz Crawford

Store managers and franchisees both have motives to reopen as early as is feasible. This may be sooner than is prudent, or even safe. Further, monitoring customers to ensure social distancing and appropriate PPE will be challenging, allowing for fresh outbreaks.

Reopening with guidelines should be coming from qualified authorities – namely the CDC and/or Dr. Fauci, not a local store manager.

Shep Hyken

Giving store managers and district managers this important decision is dangerous on many levels. Just to discuss two, the first one is obvious. Do these people have the background to make such an important decision? We’re talking about health and safety. The short answer is no.

A distant second reason is if you leave it up to individual locations, you’ll have inconsistency throughout the chain. That’s a credibility and trust killer.

Leadership should make the decision and district mangers and store managers should act appropriately. And let’s hope the leadership is making a good decision based on facts, compliance, and health and safety for their customers and employees.

Zach Zalowitz

I’m reading this as “We (Starbucks) will lead from an overall standpoint, in coordination at national level, and with our ‘green light’ that we are prepared from a supplies/policy/execution standpoint — we will then ultimately put this decision in the hands of field-managers that have the best sense of what’s necessary for their staff’s safety and their community.” A long sentence to skirt around the fact that this is really a top-down decision.

Cathy Hotka

The Store Operations Council’s Reopening Retail Safely document, with input from dozens of store operations leaders and analysts, will be ready next week to help retailers make plans for the future. Clearly, guidance from public health experts should inform the reopening schedule, and stepped up health practices like those listed above are key. The new normal won’t look at all like the old normal until vaccinations are widespread.

Laura Davis-Taylor

Looking forward to reading that Cathy, thanks for posting that it’s coming.

Lee Peterson

Protecting employees is #1 in my book, but a never-mentioned factor is also demand. And I can testify to that: There are five Starbucks locations in my vicinity. They closed four of them and do drive-thru out of the one left open. There are so many cars lined up outside that solo store that the line extends about a half mile in either direction down both sides of the street, causing traffic headaches and super frustrated customers, hence negative PR. To me, the demand element is so obvious (as I’m sure it is to their employees), they absolutely need to think about opening more drive-thrus. Undoubtedly they’ve learned enough about keeping everyone safe after six weeks, right?

On the humorous side, after witnessing the lines, I had to wonder if coffee is an “essential” product at a time like this. It is for me!

Brandon Rael

Until we learn more about the spread of the virus, how to prevent it, and develop a full understanding of who has had the virus, could we begin to fully grasp returning to our “new normal”? While we all hope and wish for a return to the way things were, it’s high time to follow the advice from the government health professionals and scientists.

There is a safety issue at play here for not only consumers, but also the critical front line essential store associates. In addition, we should expect a more socially conscious consumer, that will remain loyal to brands based on how they protect their store associates and how safe the stores are. It will all come down to trust and transparency all around the post-COVID-19 policies and procedures.