A retail storefront was never in the plan for Charis Jones’ mega-successful accessories empire. But when the founder and CEO of Sassy Jones Boutique stumbled upon a great location in a great neighborhood of Richmond, VA in June 2018, she took the plunge, devoting the back half of the building to fulfilling online orders and the front half to a retail presence. It became an IRL “gathering place,” for a community she was already fostering online—a place for shoppers to touch and try on her jewelry, bags, and scarves in person.
When COVID hit, Jones put a sign in the window and locked the door. But she didn’t despair.
“I didn't know at that point whether I was going to reopen or not, but I knew that, “Hey, this inventory, isn't going to sit here and collect dust,” you know?”
Harnessing the power of her online tribe, nurtured through regular livestreams in which she’d style products and chat with her customers, Jones sprang into action, selling many of her in-store items as exclusives in a shopping channel via social experience. It was a big success, and it gave her time to reflect on what she wanted to do next.
The pandemic has been a test for retailers, to say the least. And as governments around the world lift restrictions on store operators, questions continue to swirl about the right way to approach reopening—or whether to reopen at all. Jones leaned into her online customer base when the pandemic rattled her status quo.
Even in a wildly uncertain time, you know what’s best for your business. But it also doesn’t hurt to get some guidance and ideas as you think about how to reopen in a way that’s safe, ready-for-anything and most of all feels right for you.
- Get safety and sanitation right
- Go contactless, go cashless
- Whip out the appointment book
- Have a plan for managing returns safely
- Communicate your reopening plans
- Keep investing in ecommerce
- Consider a counterintuitive expansion
- Train your staff
First of all, don’t feel pressured to fling open your doors the minute government restrictions lift, says Shopify retail merchant success manager Karleen Murrain. “It’s not as easy as ‘My local government is now allowing us to reopen, let’s do it,’” she says. While some are ready to go, it’s more than OK to make deliberate plans to ensure you, your staff, and your customers are comfortable setting foot in the store. If you’re not confident the foot traffic will help recover costs, it may not make financial sense to open yet (many direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands in New York City opted not to reopen in early June despite the government restrictions lifting).
The logistics of ensuring safety is going to look different depending on the layout of your store, what you sell, and how the government-mandated restrictions impact you, Murrain says. Ask yourself: How will you implement social distancing in your store? How will you implement sanitation regulations? She recommends taking the government regulations and treating them as the very least you can do.
Calculate the square footage of your store to estimate how many people should be in your shop at once. Move product displays so there is more physical space to walk around in. Maybe it means opening for limited windows of the day so you can do regular cleanings in between—steaming clothing that customers have touched, wiping down all surfaces—or continuously sanitizing throughout the day. Place hand sanitizer strategically around your store, like at the cash register, entrance, and other high contact areas in your shop. Kalifano, a gift boutique in Las Vegas, created store-branded plastic personal protective equipment (PPE) shields for employees to wear, as well as face masks. They’re also enforcing social distancing at checkout and keeping the store to 50% capacity. Lush Fashion Lounge in Oklahoma City implemented these same measures, plus installed plexiglass barriers at their counters.
Delivery and curbside pickup have become the new normal as retailers adapted to government rules and shifting consumer behaviors during the pandemic. According to data from McKinsey & Company, this practice has increased by 20-50% in the United States since COVID hit. Both retailers and shoppers were really quick to adopt this practice, says Ghazal Sondhi, Shopify’s retail expert. Some merchants are using apps to help facilitate orders online and local pickup in stores (Starbucks’ mobile app is key to their reopening plan, enabling customers to pay for their coffees this way,) and brands can do this right in Shopify’s checkout to ensure a smooth, omnichannel experience between brick-and-mortar retail and online. There are plenty of reasons for click and collect and delivery to stick around after restrictions are lifted.
Inside the retail store, creating contactless interactions will also help make customers feel more comfortable and stop the spread of the virus. That’s why Shopify has expanded its tap and chip point-of-sale systems, Sondhi says. “You want to limit the use of cash as much as possible and give people the option to pay with Apple Pay and with cards as much as you can,” she says. Retailers can also take the pandemic as an opportunity to phase out cash transactions, and also offer digital receipts, adds Murrain. “If you get email addresses it can help with marketing, sure, but you also don’t need to hand someone a physical receipt,” she says. Customer contact info can also be used to notify shoppers should a confirmed COVID case be traced back to the store.
If you’re a retailer whose products need to be touched—customers need to sit on that couch or make sure they love the fit of those glasses before committing to buying—consider store appointments. “Merchants are doing it in order to limit the number of people who are physically in their store at one time as opposed to leaving it to chance,” Murrain says. “You have a bit more control of who’s coming into your store as opposed to walk-ins.” Bike shops are getting set up with online appointments in order to limit the flow of customers coming in for tune-ups to a safer flow.
Helping a customer find the perfect bra for them can be a pretty intimate experience, so Toronto-based lingerie-brand Knixwear introduced virtual appointments during COVID, in which a retailer replicates that in-person interaction by having an online face-to-face conversation with the customer about what they’re looking for, coaching them to measure themselves and pulling items off the rack that fits their shape and shopping needs. “It’s working so well that the brand doesn’t plan to rush their brick-and-mortar reopening,” Murrain says.
The downside to curbside pickup and delivery is that customers can’t physically try on an item or check it out in store. Which inevitably means items will be returned. How do you make sure they’re safe to offer for sale again? This has led some merchants to not take returns, Murrain says, in the interest of safety.
But that’s not going to make sense for everyone. “You really need to consider how you’re going to sanitize your items,” she says. Clothing retailers have steamed returns at temperatures mandated by their local governments, she says. “Some merchants are using UV scanners that kill germs.” If the return is a boxed item or in a package, it’s usually sufficient to just wipe it down with a cleaning product.
There’s also usually little need to return the item to rack right away, Murrain says—consider keeping it off the floor for a few days just to allow any possible contamination to dissipate before getting into the hands of another customer. Some fabrics are more absorbent than others, so it will depend on the product you’re dealing with, she says.
When you make changes to how you do business, it’s common sense to let your customers know. If you haven’t already been keeping up with your shoppers on social media or via email throughout the pandemic, offering discounts or engaging with customers in other ways, it’s not too late to step up your game, Jones says. In retail, “you're used to people walking in and then you strike up a conversation,” she says. Now, in the interest of connection and transparency, it’s more important than ever to “put more of yourself out there.”
“That specifically looks like documenting and live streaming the changes you’re making in your store,” she says. “You can say, ‘Hey guys, this is my store, this is me getting used to putting a mask on.’” This has the important effect of keeping on your customers’ radar, particularly in the run-up to reopening. It also reminds them that you’re a real person, just trying to figure this all out like everybody else. It’s a good idea to normalize virtual chats with your buyers too: Messaging and live streaming can be the primary drivers to facilitate customer relationships.
Jones was able to quickly move product from that shuttered retail location because of her brand’s rich life in ecommerce, which only laid bare the importance of investing in that online presence pandemic or not. Plus-size male clothing retailer Chubbies, which has five stores in the southeastern US, has also focused on moving product out of the stores by making items available online (which was a pivot for their business). They’re also evaluating local delivery and letting customers buy online and pick up in store.
This pandemic has not been kind to a lot of traditional stores: The COVID-19 lockdown put already declining mall-based retailers like J.Crew, True Religion, Neiman Marcus, and JCPenney out of their misery (they all filed for bankruptcy this spring). But interestingly, some DTC brands are finding opportunities in this changing landscape, taking advantage of lower rent and customer loyalty to open brick-and-mortar locations.
“We think that, out of this crisis, there are going to be really great deals that we'll be able to broker with landlords,” Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO David Gilboa told Shopify Plus. “There are going to be some companies that need more space, and we'll be one of them.” It seems counterintuitive for an online brand to open a brick and mortar right now. But the eyewear retailer thinks larger stores will allow for more flexibility, let them have more customers in their stores at once (based on square footage) and expand the number of eye exam rooms they have, Gilboa said. “Some of the specific tactics around our store rollout, the speed at which we open stores—that footprint might look a little different,” he says. But the overall customer service strategy “will not change.”
When Apple reopened its retail locations in Australia, they built regular check-ins with staff into their recovery plan. This involved asking them how safe they felt, whether they had the PPE they needed, and getting feedback about what was going well and what wasn’t. That also gives you, the retailer, good insight into how effective your training has been, and what should be regularly refreshed. “Make sure your staff understands what you’re implementing and know what your customers expect and have been told,” Murrain says.
A reopen might also drastically change how your staff spend their time: When they may have worked shifts counting inventory, arranging products in the store and checking out customers at the till, they may now spend more time messaging customers throughout the day, creating content for short videos and hosting live-streams with customers. As priorities change, you might consider implementing flexible working hours for staff, a decentralized work experience (i.e. more staff working from home, if you can get away with it), and more of their time building customer relationships and loyalty one on one than they might’ve during a regular customer-facing store experience before the pandemic.
Instead of reopening her Richmond VA storefront, Jones ultimately decided to buy out her lease and focus on her ecommerce business. She learned a lot about retail and now has an elevated level of respect for people who do it. But at the end of the day, she says, any business owner has to follow their instincts and do what’s right for them. “Just trust yourself,” she says. “Listen to your gut.”