Retail chains face uphill battle getting shoppers back in stores

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Major retailers that are starting to reopen face the dual challenge of providing protective gear to thousands of employees and convincing consumers it’s safe to make purchases in person.

Employers are under pressure to make sure their workers are well equipped when store doors open. They’ll also need to impose social distancing measures, ramp up sanitation standards and alter how customers buy their merchandise.

The most high-profile test will come on Monday, when Macy’s plans to reopen 68 stores after shuttering all of them on March 18. The company expects to reopen almost 700 more stores in the next six weeks.

“Making customers feel safe, for the industry, is priority number one because people are not going to go into stores unless they feel safe,” said Jason Brewer, executive vice president of communications and state affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Macy’s said it is installing Plexiglas at registers and signs to remind shoppers of distancing, as well as reducing the number of fitting rooms, which will be sanitized more often. The company’s stock has plunged 66 percent this year.

Like most businesses, retailers have been hit hard by the coronavirus. Retail sales in March plunged by nearly 9 percent, the most on record, according to the Commerce Department. 

Some nationwide chains like Wal-Mart, Costco and Target have remained open during the coronavirus pandemic and taken steps similar to the ones on tap for Macy’s.

“We’re working with these retailers to learn the best practices they have developed and share them with other retailers so employees and customers will be safe when the country re-opens,” National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.

“We are confident that customers will come back. We may have to operate differently for a while, but retail will return,” he added.

But it’s not just employers and employees who will have to take additional safety measures. 

Costco said that starting Monday, requiring all employees and shoppers to wear face coverings in the stores, as well as limit the number of people in the store at once. Other chains have also been providing masks for workers, which is a clear and visual way to make customers feel like the store has taken precautions.

“If everybody wears a mask, everybody’s safer and that’s a policy that I think retailers should try to instigate. People are used to it already — you go to grocery stores or essential retailers, they’re exercising social distancing or making people wear a mask. So this is not a new idea,” said Barbara E. Kahn, professor of marketing at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

But retailers will also have to win over a skeptical public, with some angered by how workers say they’re being treated on the job.

Employees at Whole Foods and Target, as well as warehouse and delivery workers for Amazon and Instacart, went on strike on Friday for International Workers Day. 

Unions have criticized some companies, saying they were too slow to provide or still haven’t provided protective gear, medical screening and testing for workers.

Those extra health measures cost employers, but experts agree that it’s worth it. 

“Safety is job one. The question in employees’ and customers’ minds: Do I feel safe? Do I trust this retailer or this brand to put my safety first?” said Ron Kinghorn, consumer markets advisory leader at PWC. “The mask is in many ways the most obvious and physical representation of a measure or step one can take. Every dollar, every penny matters more than ever now in retail. But masks are clearly going to be something that… needs to be in the mix to create that safety and confidence.”

Another reason it makes good business sense is because some retailers could be vulnerable to lawsuits if they don’t take the necessary steps.

The business community has been pressuring the White House and Congress to shield companies from liability as they seek to reopen, a debate that has quickly emerged as a new sticking point as lawmakers weigh another round of coronavirus relief aid.

The measures retailers put in place could look different across the country, though. 

Toni Thompson, president of retail solutions at marketing and communications firm R.R. Donnelley, said companies can adapt to the needs of different states and municipalities.

“If you’re in a high-risk area, you’re going to want to see a whole bunch of stuff. If you’re in a low risk area, not so much,” Thompson said. “A retailer, particularly a national one, doesn’t have to have the same response for every store. It will have to be tailored.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) has called for uniform standards in the U.S. to ensure safe reopenings. 

“Consumers are better off when they have a clear expectation of what the rules are and what they’re going to encounter,” RILA President Brian Dodge told The Hill.

RILA and NRF have called for expanding e-commerce, curbside pick-up and home delivery during phase one of reopening the economy.

Best Buy announced it will adopt appointment shopping to limit the number of people in stores starting this month. Two hundred of its locations will be open to in-store appointments with a dedicated sales associate and staff will be required to wear masks, gloves, and take daily self-health checks.

Nicole DeHoratius, adjunct professor of operations management at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, called that an “effective” idea.

“It allows one to minimize contact with others and it helps with the track-and-trace process should there be that need,” she said.

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