With run specialty stores in many parts of the country reopening this week and more to come soon as states loosen stay-at-home restrictions, retailers are suddenly faced with the challenge of figuring out how to do something they have never done before — reopen their stores after a virus-mandated closing.
That topic was addressed in a free-flowing Run Specialty Virtual Town Hall on Thursday, sponsored by Running Insight and The Running Event, featuring Holly Wiese and Andy Davis of 3 Dots Design.
Wiese presented her answers to two pressing questions as these reopenings approach:
- What adjustments should retailers consider making to their store layouts before reopening?
- What types of procedural changes should they consider from a merchandising and shopping perspective to ensure the safety of their staff and customers? Equally important, how will they ensure that customers feel safe enough to leave their homes and decide to enter their stores again?
“When COVID-19 hit a few months ago, we started thinking about how this was going to affect the layout of the stores,” Wiese said. “We wondered how stores were going to remerchandise as they reopen.”
Changing The Store Experience
Like everything else the COVID-19 had impacted, the pandemic is changing things as basic as the actual layout of a store and the transactional process itself.
“The way you react to these changes will make or break your reopening,” Wiese warned.
She urged run retailers to take their cues from what many of the larger retailers are doing as they face the same challenges, albeit on a much-larger scale. These big guys are having to address retailing with concepts such as sneeze guards, six-foot circles, requiring (or not) masks on customers and employees, appointment-only retailing, etc.
All of it is designed to make customers feel safe enough to shop in a brick-and-mortar store again.
“As important as keeping customers and employees safe is making them feel safe,” Wiese emphasized. “You have to have them walk into your store and feel like you have made the effort to keep them safe.”
One of the key retail components that is going to have to change are fixture placements, simply because of the six-foot spacing required in public spaces to cut down of social interaction. “You cannot have people walking through your space bumping into fixtures or even touching any merchandise or something they don’t want to touch,” Wiese explained.
The simplest solution is to pull 20, 30 or even 50 percent of fixtures off of the floor before re-opening. Other ideas are to have directional arrows on the floors to direct traffic, which works best in larger stores, and making sure this traffic flow doesn’t end up in a dead end or putting people unavoidably close to each other.
“No matter what your space is, you need to step back and think when your customer walks into your door how they are going to navigate, what will the traffic flow be,” she added.
Another change will be shoe fittings. Back-to-back benches are a thing of the past and stores will have to provide six feet between the benches or chairs. If that means fewer fitting areas, that’s the price stores will have to pay for making customers feel safe.
The cash wrap area is another challenging spot in a post-COVID-19 world. Stores will have to come up with a design for checking customers out — some will only have one cash wrap open, most will have designated areas where people can stand and a divider between multiple aisles and a sneeze guard at cash wrap. To cap it all off, there needs to be a clear and obvious path to leaving the store.
“You don’t want your customers to ever think where your products are or how to check out,” Wiese said. “They are stressed out with so many things, so take shopping in your store off their list as something they have to stress about.”
The Apparel Challenge
How to handle a high-touch category such as apparel is also a challenge and there seems to be no one solution. Moderator Mark Sullivan, of Running Insight, pointed out that Saks is taking clothing out of commission for 48 hours after a customer tries it on. Macys opts for a 24-hour process. Urban Outfitters and Target will not allow trying on and have closed their fitting rooms.
Retailers taking part in the Virtual Town Hall had a number of apparel suggestions:
- Simply have less clothing on the floor. Three retailers told Wiese they will be removing apparel from their small stores completely, at least during their reopenings.
- Put mannequins out on the floor with top-selling apparel, or selected brands, with a sign that a staff member will gladly help pick out the merchandise on display.
- Many stores are extending return policies to allow customers to essentially buy the apparel, try it on at home and return it if it doesn’t fit.
- Virtual fashion shows have been very successful for a number of stores.
- Allow for “breathing room” on all merchandising. Give people space. “You don’t have to leave it up to the customer to decide what’s right,” Wiese said. “You have already made that decision for them.”
And then there is the question of trying on shoes and socks, another decision retailers need to make. Kris Hartner, of Naperville Running Company, says they are going to require everyone to try on shoes with a new pair of socks.
“They don’t have to buy them, we will have that discussion with the later in the process,” he said. “We might even have a higher rate of selling socks if we require them on try-ons, but we don’t require them to buy the pair they use.” Unsold pairs are collected, sanitized and donated.
Retailers realize that there are a significant number of questions they must answer as they prepare to reopen (hopefully) in the coming weeks.
- Should bathrooms remain open? Mixed responses — some won’t open them and others will, but with strict sanitation procedures.
- Should staff wear gloves and masks? Staff really should wear masks, especially if customers are wearing them.
- Keeping water coolers or fountains open? Unanimously, no.
- Kids in the store? Some stores are only allowing two people from a family unit in. Others won’t place limits.
- Require masks on customers? This depends mostly on part of the country.
- Appointment shopping? This is turning out to be a fairly good option for stores to reopen slowly, with the added benefit of much higher sales percentages. Some would consider continuing the process.
“Reopening has to be a tiered thing,” Wiese concluded. “If you start off a little stringent with your requirements, I don’t anything anyone will be complaining. They will appreciate the effort to their safety.”
Wrapping it up, Rich Wills, whose FitNiche stores in Florida reopened three days ago, provided a ray of hope to fellow retailers anxious about how this is all going to play out when their stores reopen.
“The most important thing is to be empathetic with every customer,” he said. “We let customers be customers. Everyone has been very respectful.”