Retail stores are slowly reopening across the country as provincial governments ease up on COVID-19 closures.
Ontario allowed retail stores located outside of indoor shopping malls to reopen as of May 19, and Quebec will allow some retail stores and businesses to reopen in the Greater Montreal area on May 25.
But the way stores operate and how people shop within them will not be the same — at least for the foreseeable future.
“Until a vaccine or treatment has come up, regardless of what the retailer does, the consumer is going to be very cautious about going back to retail,” said Kenneth Wong, a professor of marketing at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business.
Retail stores are thinking about customers’ in-store experience and how to make it as safe as possible, said Seung Hwan (Mark) Lee, the director of retail management at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.
Retail environments need to adapt to the pandemic, Lee said, or else they will lose shoppers.
This may mean implementing markers on the floor to signal physical distancing, contactless-payment options and plexiglass separating cashiers and shoppers.
“You may also see retail stores arranging their layouts so that there’s a better traffic flow,” Lee said.
Some stores may limit the amount of product they have on display, Lee said, so there’s more space between aisles or departments. Limiting the number of shoppers allowed in at a time will also be common practice.
Hudson’s Bay opened its stores in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia earlier this month with new measures in place, and is reopening locations in Ontario on Friday.
In a statement, the company said it has “enhanced health and safety protocols and modified services to ensure the safest possible shopping experience for customers and associates.”
Hudson’s Bay said in-store protocols include enhanced cleaning practices and directional signage on floors “for easy navigation and physical distancing.” The company also said services like beauty sampling will be adjusted, and stores will operate with reduced hours to allow for cleaning.
Curbside pick-up is also available for shoppers who do not wish to go into stores.
Smaller retailers and independent businesses are making their own modifications. Vancouver-based business owner Sharon Hayles of Diane’s Lingerie said the new reality in retail apparel is going to look very different from what her clientele is accustomed to.
Hayles closed her small business temporarily in mid-March and is now planning to reopen on June 1 with several health and safety measures in place.
The store is in the process of being fully sanitized before any merchandise is returned to sales racks. Hayles is also ordering hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment including masks, which staff and customers will be required to wear.
Only three of Hayles’ six fitting rooms will be open at a time — but all of them will be rotated and subject to regular sanitization after use so customers don’t have to wait too long for turnover.
Greg Wilson, the director of government relations for the Retail Council of Canada, said small stores will have a difficult task in making sure there’s adequate room for customers.
“Between customers they’ll have to do a clean of the high-touch points, things like the door handles,” Wilson previously told Global News.
Personal protective equipment
Cosmetic retailer Sephora announced on Thursday their plans to reopen retail stores beginning Friday in communities where it is safe to do so.
In a statement, Sephora said that all employees will be wearing face masks, and will be required to have their temperatures taken at the beginning and middle of their shifts. The company also said in-store health measures will be in place, including hand sanitizer, social distancing guidelines and restricted store capacities.
Perhaps most notably, cosmetic testers will be for display only, and in-store beauty services “are suspended until further notice.”
As with Sephora employees, retail workers may start wearing masks just as some grocery store workers do, Lee said. In retail spaces where physical distancing is challenging, like smaller stores, employees may rely more on personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Depending on the industry, we’re starting to see some stores handing out masks to customers too,” Lee said.
“When physical distancing cannot be met, how do we separate people? Maybe that is through partitions or plexiglass, or ensuring that masks are available.”
It’s important to note, however, that larger or chain retailers may be at an advantage when it comes to obtaining PPE and implementing store changes, like a new contactless payment system or web store, Wong said.
Big box stores better have the ability to implement such measures and spread out those costs “over a massive volume of business.” Smaller or independent stores may have even thinner profit margins, and therefore will greatly feel COVID-19-related costs.
Communicating safety to customers
Even when a retail store opens its doors, it doesn’t mean shoppers will come.
People may not return to shopping in-person unless they feel it is safe to do so, experts said, meaning it will be up to a retailer to clearly communicate what health and safety protocols are in place.
“It’s not going to be enough to say we’re safe and hygienic,” Wong explained.
“People are going to want to hear about processes and what disinfectants they are using… that really calls upon on our central governments to develop some standards and protocols so that Canadians can feel safe while they’re shopping.
“If they don’t feel safe, they won’t be going back.”
It’s also vital that retailers treat employees well, and offer them the tools needed to do their jobs safely. Like grocery store workers, retail employees are the ones interacting with shoppers on a regular basis, Lee said.
Furthermore, they are the face of the company.
“Employees properly trained and be able to inform customers if they have any questions on what are some of the cleaning practices that has implemented,” Lee said.
Small businesses vs. chain retailers
Reopening is theoretically good for businesses, but there’s still going to be monetary concerns. The financial impact of the pandemic has severely affected many Canadians, as millions have lost their jobs or experienced a reduction in income.
“Hygiene isn’t the only factor that will drive consumers,” Wong said.
“The current conventional wisdom is once the dust has settled, you’re going to find Canadians more in debt than they already are.”
With more Canadians strapped for cash, Wong said, they may turn to big-box stores that can offer lower prices. This means smaller or independent retailers may suffer even more.
Retail chains like Costco or Walmart also have an advantage, Wong said, because they have preferred access to supply manufacturers due to their large quantities of orders.
“All of those stores are going to be more expensive than the chains and big box stores,” Wong explained.
“Canadians are going to have to decide what kind of city they want to live in. And they’ll be voting now with their wallets.”
— With files from Global News reporter Kristen Robinson
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
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