When should non-essential retail stores reopen?

Photo: RetailWire
Apr 13, 2020
Tom Ryan

A new survey from Morning Consult finds 24 percent of U.S. consumers do not expect to feel comfortable going back to a shopping mall for at least six months. Another 26 percent were not sure when they would feel comfortable, or offered no opinion.

Half of the respondents in the survey taken from April 7 to 9 said they would be comfortable heading back in three months, including nine percent within a month and 16 percent within two months.

Another survey from First Insight, fielded on April 3, found 60 percent of U.S. consumers feel that stores should reopen by the end of May.

The surveys come amid some hopeful signals that coronavirus infections may be plateauing in hot spots like New York. Government officials are also weighing the public safety versus economic risks of relaxing social distancing guidelines.

First Insight’s survey found 87 percent of consumers now saying they are worried about the coronavirus, up from 71 percent in the last survey in mid-March.

“We may still have a way to go,” said Greg Petro, CEO of First Insight, in statement. “That said, it is important that retailers and brands continue planning by ensuring they have the right product and price when the time comes.”

Without a vaccine or understanding of how many people are immune due to a lack of testing, social distancing calls will remain. Many non-essential retailers will have to decide to what degree they will reopen. When they do so, many will add safety measures currently found in grocery stores, including restricted entry, one-way aisles and plexiglass barriers for cashiers.

Many states and cities are requiring customers to wear masks while shopping in accordance with CDC recommendations. LaBonne’s Markets, a family-owned grocery chain in Connecticut, last week began taking customers’ temperatures.

Retailers also have to consider whether it’s worth it to reopen.

H&M’s slow traffic recovery in China since reopening stores was a sign to Honor Strachan, analyst at GlobalData, that shoppers will return apprehensively in other regions, as well. Mr. Strachan wrote in a note, “Understandably retailers will be keen to reopen stores to clear seasonal stock and recover lost revenue, but the impact to profitability by opening these stores too early could be severe.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What factors should determine when non-essential stores reopen for business? What changes, if any, do you expect to see in these locations when they finally reopen?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Stores should open when public health leadership says it’s safe to do so – not politicians. Public health and safety must come before commerce. "
"Do you really think we’re qualified to answer this question? I don’t, and I’m looking for someone who has a background in infectious diseases to opine."
"I’m with many of my colleagues here – when public health officials (not politicians) say it’s okay. And please let it be soon because I really need a haircut."

Join the Discussion!

39 Comments on "When should non-essential retail stores reopen?"

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Paula Rosenblum

Do you really think we’re qualified to answer this question? I don’t, and I’m looking for someone who has a background in infectious diseases to opine. Not a politician, not a retailer, someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

I have my opinions, but I’m a retail analyst…

Bethany Allee

What Paula said.

Steve Montgomery

I second Bethany.

Bob Amster

Right on Paula.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
11 months 28 days ago

100 percent, Paula!

Lee Peterson

Exactly, right on!

Michael Blackburn
11 months 28 days ago

Agree 100%. These types of polls are dangerous

Ed Rosenbaum

My thoughts exactly. We can only give opinions based on our beliefs and desires.

Ananda Chakravarty


Mark Ryski

Stores should open when public health leadership says it’s safe to do so – not politicians. Public health and safety must come before commerce. Today, the Washington Post reported that at least 41 grocery workers have died so far. Retail workers are dying to help people buy essentials, which is tragic enough – should we ask retail workers to risk their lives over a sweater? A pair of shoes? When stores do open, they will do so slowly and carefully. The fact is, store traffic will be slow to come back anyway, given the financial carnage this crisis has placed on most consumers.

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Loyalty Strategist, Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute
11 months 28 days ago

Hopefully brands have the backbone to abide by this, even when they have the option to reopen because the agendas of individual governors and “economy over everything else” politicians who decide to push the the envelope because “America.”

Richard Hernandez

If non-essentials can follow the social distancing and sanitary rules that are being followed by essential businesses then it should be a consideration but a lot depends on the county/state mandates in place and the situation on positive infection cases, deaths and recoveries.

Nikki Baird
Looking at how China has gone about reopening non-essential retail, I think we can expect requirements to limit the number of people in the store, to create wide enough spaces for consumers to pass each other at socially-distant lengths, wear masks in stores, perform daily or even hourly deep cleans, and yes, even temperature checks before entering stores. Based on Chinese consumer behavior, it looks like we can expect demand for contactless commerce to remain high, even as consumers come back to stores – ordering online or via mobile for going to the store, sustained use (at least in the short term) of home delivery or curbside pickup, and BOPIS that doesn’t involve interacting directly with a store associate. Retailers might also need to expect limited hours at first, or new staffing requirements – as governments increase their ability to rapidly ID someone who is infected and perform contact tracing, one potential impact is the need to quarantine an entire store staff that might’ve had contact. In China, retailers started instituting controlled shifts so that… Read more »
Jeff Sward

When Dr. Fauci gives the green light. And I suspect that will be regionally and with newly defined social distancing rules. There is not going to be a “light switch” moment.

Dick Seesel

Unfortunately for all of us, with the President retweeting statements like this (“Time to #FireFauci…”) the decision-making may be more about politics and less about public health than most of us feel comfortable with.

In general, I think the private sector is going to have to step in on the testing front where the government has failed to do so, whether it’s a non-essential retailer (think Macy’s or Kohl’s) or a large office-based company. These employers need to work with local health systems where they already have relationships through insurance contracts to accelerate the mass testing that needs to happen soon.

David Naumann
David Naumann
CEO and President, Cogent Creative Consulting
11 months 28 days ago

There are several factors that will determine when non-essential stores will reopen for business. First, retailers will need to wait to open stores in specific states until governors lift the current restrictions on each state. This will likely not be a nationwide decision. The decisions will be complicated and based on more testing and a dramatic decrease in new COVID-19 cases.

Once non-essential retailers are given the “green light” in a given state, they will probably be operating under some new rules, at least initially. I suspect that retail associates may be required to wear face masks and gloves and they will continue to practice social distancing. Consumers may be encouraged to wear mask and gloves initially, until health officials are comfortable with the level of new cases. It is going to be weird for a while, but at least retailers will begin to open their doors soon. Whatever officials determine “soon” is in their state!

Michael Terpkosh

I think the consumer has it right. When approximately 50 percent of the survey participants are not comfortable or not sure about going back to the mall this should tell non-essential retailers something. Retailer precautions, like those implemented in grocery retailing, will help. But until employment comes back, consumers will not have the disposable income to spend. For now there is no rush to reopen non-essential stores.

Suresh Chaganti
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
11 months 28 days ago

The curve should get past peak at the state level and the national level, the number of patients that need hospitalization should be manageable by the hospital system. Hopefully this level is achievable in next few weeks.

Physical distancing must be in place for the foreseeable future. Extending the current crowd control protocols to limit shopping hours and the number of people in-store will be required for few months until therapeutics, vaccine and herd immunity are developed.

Neil Saunders

This decision has to be based on the epidemiological data and so needs guidance from scientists. That said, it is likely that the opening dates will vary from state to state – as the infection curves vary from state to state.

No decision should be guided by what consumers happen to think in a survey. People are free to exercise their personal judgment about whether to visit a mall or not, but consumer preferences don’t trump science.

Brian Cluster

It is highly dependent on the situation in specific regions of the country. We should also be cautious and mindful about reducing the chance of a second spike after businesses are open.

I would expect that the non-essential retailers are following and learning from the grocery, mass and drug retailers in terms of organizing the store, the checkout and putting precautions in place for store personnel and customers. We may see new cautions put in place such as temperature scans for all customers and requirements that everyone wears a mask for several more months.

The ultimate answer will come from our health officials with state and local government and will create hopefully clear guidelines to help non-essential retailers make this critical decision.

Gene Detroyer

I’m sorry, but who in their right mind would even speculate? Follow the data. Follow the experts. Follow the need. NEED is capital letters.

Now that the curve is flattening, too many people are saying we should start opening. To me, that is a bizarre thought. I am not even sure that when the curve in on the downward trend that that is a signal.

There are other countries that are slowly opening. Let’s see what happens there. What is the rush versus the risk for a second or third wave?

As an aside, my daughter delivered a handful of babies this week. Half of the mothers were asymptomatic, but tested positive for COVID-19. Does that suggest that there is 50 percent of the population out there running around without symptoms but with the ability to spread the virus? Or 40 percent? Or 20 percent? Or even 10 percent? How can we open anything without knowing this number?