How to open up shop safely

12 May 2020

Until a vaccine is officially released, there is no life post-COVID, only life with it. Current restrictions will depend on which state you’re in, but as lockdown measures are lifted around the nation, it’s crucial for retailers to plan ahead for how to operate in an era of social distancing - and how to meet the guidelines set out by the Opening Up America Again plan. We’ve compiled this guide with advice from other companies and countries on how to open up shop safely. Plus, some ideas on how to make it work for your business, staff and community.


Rethinking store layouts

It’s likely that your old store wasn’t designed with a pandemic in mind, but it’s now crucial for a new design that helps to stop the spread of COVID – mainly by considering how your store will accomodate the need for social distancing. Larger retailers in the US are already exploring this, with Kroger and Walmart currently testing out a Scandi-style one-way system to minimise contact and keep their shoppers safe. A new layout to a familiar store may be difficult to remember for some customers, but this problem can be easily solved by installing signage, or even social-distancing floor stickers, as many have done around the world.

Another thing you’ll need to consider when planning a new layout is whether customers will be allowed to touch your products. A recent study has found that the coronavirus can survive on cardboard for 24 hours, and up to 72 hours on plastic and metal, so what will you do with products after people have touched them? Perhaps you could introduce a similar policy to some UK supermarkets, who have encouraged customers to “only touch what you intend to buy”.

Embracing waiting in line.

For smaller brands who perhaps don’t have the space for a store redesign, a good strategy to deploy is the tactical use of waiting in line. Not only will it limit entry to the store and allow your customers to practise social distancing, but it could also be an unlikely way to form excitement and a sense of community around your brand. Before lockdown, brands like Supreme would use lines outside their store in this way – they stretched for hours around the block for fans who were prepared to wait. It created hype and status around their brand, and it’s where fans were able to meet each other.

Now, we have no choice but to wait outside in a line. However, there are still ways to make it a community experience, even when we’re two metres apart. For instance, London store Notting Hill Fish Shop put out chairs for their older customers to sit on while they waited outside. “It encourages them to share their COVID ‘war stories’ and have a chat while they wait,” remarked founder Chris D’Sylva, “I realised my store had become a stand-in for the local pub.”

If your store isn’t large enough to accommodate a line, there are other ways to limit entry to your store. Consider setting up a system where customers can book a slot for a select shopping hour – this could also be a way to offer a more tailored shopping experience to customers, as well as protecting more vulnerable ones.

Notting Hill Fish Shop ©Appear Here

PPE and staff safety

In this new retail landscape, your staff won’t just keep your store safe, they’ll make your customers feel safe too. Before your team comes back to work, it’s crucial to get everyone up to speed on your new safety policies, how to communicate with customers and how to protect themselves too. As an employer, you are required to introduce social distancing measures to protect your staff and your customers, who are all required by law to wear PPE in public in most states.

The best place you can start with is by completing a risk assessment. You’ll need to include things like how you’ll implement PPE, how many employees and customers can be in the store at any given time and ways your staff can prevent putting others at risk. You should note a list of symptoms that staff should check for each day before coming in – make sure they clearly understand official advice and are informed to make the correct decisions.

Focusing on customer service.

Your store staff’s role as ambassadors for your brand have never been more important. Industry publication My Customer has recently written on the importance of ‘emotionally intelligent customer service’ when communicating during COVID. This includes addressing issues with compassion, using clear unambiguous communication and putting a positive spin on everything. The Royal College of Nursing has recently recommended the ‘smize’ – smiling with your eyes – for their nurses whose faces are covered with PPE, this would definitely work for retail staff too. For clothing labels, there’s an opportunity to inject even more of your brand’s personality into protective gear. By designing PPE for your staff that’s in line with your unique aesthetic you can create a sense of familiarity between your staff and customers and let your brand’s personality shine through - just like handbag brand Clare V with face masks in their signature checked material. Consider how your brand can put your customers at ease in store, whether it’s through a combination of upbeat music and friendly staff, or whether you’ll offer exclusive in store perks for your loyal customers.


Using stores as distribution hubs.

If fully re-opening your store seems too ambitious for your brand right now, there are other resourceful ways to utilise your space and keep your staff in jobs. One way to do this is repurposing your store into a distribution hub – an HQ for all your brand’s e-commerce activity. This could be particularly useful for stores located outside the well-connected cities with a dedicated group of local customers. One way many US stores have done this is through introducing ‘curbside pick-ups’: the option for a customer to order online and then pick it up from outside the store. For example, local Brooklyn bookstore WORD leaves ordered books on a bookshelf at the front of their store so that customers can safely pick it up with zero contact.Remember, even if you’re not in a place to fully reopen, you can still find ways to get your business journey back on track.

Revising your returns policy.

Handling customer returns was a pressing issue for brands before the crisis. Americans returned about $400 billion in merchandise in 2018 alone. But it’s one that’ll need extra attention in the current crisis. Returns will need to be no-cash, no-contamination and most importantly – no contact. The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised that the likelihood of catching the virus from a package that has travelled is very low, but it’s still important to review how you’ll handle customer returns. Having returns collected elsewhere not only means the transition can be zero-contact, but it will also eradicate the need for unnecessary trips to your store, taking the pressure off the customer and your staff. For instance, footwear brand Allbirds have extended their returns policy to 100 days to ease congestion when their stores open. To achieve a similar aim, L.A.-based fashion label Aquelarre have organised complimentary pick-up returns from their customers’ homes.


Communicating with customers

Recently, Chief Executive of Retail Economics Richard Lim said: “Understandably, consumers will remain anxious about shopping in crowded locations. Shopping has always been a social event, but new restrictions on our movement and personal interaction risk undermining the experience." In other words, people may love your store, but they’re not going to visit unless they feel safe to do so. So, it’s essential that you effectively communicate all of the measures that you and your staff are taking to make your store safe to go to.

As well as communicating in store, think about what you can also do through social media, email marketing, or even posters in your area to let your locals know that you’re open for business. A great example is Pop-up Grocer: after announcing they’ll reopen in Austin in June, they’re using their socials to promote in detail all the safety measures they’ll be implementing to their followers. Whatever you do, make sure you’re true to your brand’s unique tone of voice – anything too sterile or clinical could put customers off. Communicate in a way that makes sense to you.

Cleaning your store

It may be so obvious during a pandemic it doesn’t need to be said, but there should be no confusion when it comes to maintaining your store’s hygiene. While there is no specific government advice for cleaning retail stores as yet, there is an abundance of advice on the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention website on cleaning and disinfecting your facility. The official advice on cleaning up after a symptomatic person is that all surfaces that the person has come into contact with must be cleaned and disinfected while wearing gloves, apron and a facemask.

‘High contact areas’ are a particular risk of being contaminated, these include areas such as door handles, telephones, bathrooms, banisters and changing rooms – which might be banned altogether. You are recommended to use steam cleaning on fabrics and disposable cloths and household detergent on hard surfaces – but make sure the detergent you select is effective against viruses. Waste should be double-bagged and stored in an area that isn’t communal. Big retailers like Macy’s are cleaning all trolleys, baskets, screens and touch points every regularly, whereas a smaller brand with fewer staff may benefit from allocating specific shopping hours and then cleaning the store in between.

If you’re looking to launch a store once lockdown lifts, you can chat to one of our expert advisors via The Hotline to get help and advice on setting up shop.