It’s impossible to scroll through a social media feed today and not see some headline related to coronavirus every few posts. But one Fast Company post made me pause for a moment and consider the implications: “Flying after COVID-19 will never be the same.”
Worth the read — especially for frequent travelers — the gist of the piece is this: There’s already been plenty of chatter in the airline industry about the need to alter plane cabins to keep passengers safe from one another. After all, cramming a bunch of people into a tiny, enclosed space has never been a pleasant experience. But in this age of COVID-19, it may now be a total nonstarter.
With that in mind, Italian brand Avio Interiors has already offered plane makers a look at what seat designs could look like in the post-COVID-19 world. Their two concepts employ plastic see-through dividers that physically separate seatmates and confine ickyness to each passenger’s own small area.
Airlines and retail don’t have a great deal in common, but the article raises similar questions for our industry: What is retail going to look like as states let businesses once again open their doors to the general public? What steps should small business owners take to ensure they’re ready and able to reopen successfully? And what changes will store owners need to make to their business in order to keep employees and customers safe?
As more and more states begin to relax their stay-at-home orders, it feels like we’re closer to needing answers than we’d like to admit.
Embracing a New Normal
Though cliché, one thing this novel coronavirus has taught independent retail owners is that they need to prepare for a new normal. With so much attention on cleanliness and mitigating the spread of disease, it’s going to be absolutely necessary for retailers to adjust their in-store experience to better protect their customers and employees. That includes regular deep cleanings, disinfecting surfaces before and after demonstrations, limiting close contact with customers, perhaps staggering shifts to reduce the number of employees in the store at a time, and either strongly encouraging or requiring customers and employees to wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We’re not mandating it, but we will ask customers if they would like a mask or if they would like us to wear a mask,” said Ryan Baty, owner of The Mattress Hub in Wichita, Kansas.
Baty also said that he’s encouraging social distancing of at least 10-15 feet within the store, more than double the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of a six-foot gap. Additionally, Baty asks employees to clean constantly and — importantly — while customers are in the store. “We want our customers to see us do this,” he explained. “It’s a difficult line to walk because if we promote that we’re constantly cleaning but they don’t see it, it could work against us.”
Similarly, Donnie Thedford of Don’s TV and Appliance Inc., in Tyler, Texas, said he regularly encourages employees to take precautions in order to protect themselves and their customers.
“I’m close to all my 48 employees,” he said. “So, I’m going into each department, encouraging them, ‘It’s getting better, but still, clean. Clean your dollies. Clean your trucks. Wear your mask. Wear your gloves.’”
Along those lines, retailers need to consider how they plan to stock up on and supply PPE to employees and customers. Items to consider having on hand include:
- Reusable KN95 masks (consumer-grade masks that don’t affect the supply chain for medical-grade N95 masks)
- Disposable masks, gloves, gowns and shoe covers
- Reusable face shields or protective goggles
- Hand sanitizer
- Cleaning solutions
- Social distancing POP materials
Sourcing items like the ones listed here can be a major challenge, especially at a time when nearly every individual and business is looking to stock up. Remember how hard it was (and perhaps still is) to find toilet paper in your area? The hunt for PPE is much worse right now and likely won’t let up any time soon.
Inventory and Showroom Prep
PPE might not be the only thing that’s hard for retailers to come by right now. For a number of reasons on the manufacturing and delivery side of things, the COVID-19 crisis has put a stranglehold on the retail supply chain across nearly all major product categories. As such, prepping your retail warehouse for a return to business is going to be a challenge. But it’s something that needs attention now rather than on the eve of a store’s reopening.
Don’s TV has been struggling with availability, even though some of their suppliers told them back in March to consider putting dated orders in.
“At that point, we weren’t going to put a lot of orders in anywhere because we just didn’t know what tomorrow would bring or whether we were going to be open,” Thedford said. “We were more concerned with keeping our people employed and keeping them safe, so we didn’t date a lot of orders. And, in fact, we pulled back ordering.”
Thedford has since heeded manufacturers’ advice and ramped up ordering. Specifically, he’s focused on dating orders with his key vendors out through June just to secure continuing inventory on the store’s core models. Some manufacturing plants though, he’s been told, are operating around 60% capacity because of the COVID-19 situation. So, while a smaller retailer may be in an OK place right now with their in-stock product, they may want to start looking further down the road to prevent any product shortages.
For John Riddle, president and CEO of Howard’s in Southern California, that’s something he’s working on in a phased approach.
“We’re looking at store hours and staffing, our marketing budgets, what we’re doing from a standpoint of home delivery and installation and our inventory levels from a forecasting standpoint for both Memorial Day and then 4th of July,” Riddle said. “And I think all of those things are going to be based on a sort of phased-in approach.”
More specifically, Howard’s plans to treat their store reopenings as if they were coming off of a remodel — something the company did four times in the past year.
“We’re working with general contractors and people that may have gone totally dark during this period of the crisis, and that puts a time crunch on you to try to hit store launch timeframes,” he said. “So we’re looking to get those back on track. But we want to make sure that as we bring them on track, we’re also maintaining things like social distancing and so forth, that we’re not doing things within store kiosks or live product vignettes that have too many people in a location at a time and we’re unable to have safe behaviors.”
Lean on Technology
The other side to this “new normal” for the independent retailer will almost certainly include a renewed investment in their digital offerings. While shut down or severely limited in their ability to welcome customers into their showrooms, retailers in this industry showed a tremendously unique ability to adapt on the fly and embrace new technologies.
Enhanced websites. On-site chat programs. Video conferencing with customers. Social media strategies. These things should become a part of the regular lexicon for small business owners going forward.
They certainly have for Orsini Appliance in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Inside a brand new 9,200-square-foot showroom that opened this winter, the team has been investing in video equipment to make the most of a new YouTube channel. Where live in-store cooking demos were once held to showcase their selection of grills, the retailer is now streaming those demos to an audience confined to their homes.
“For us, it has been challenging, but also kind of fun, to see how we can switch the business,” owner P.J. Orsini said. “COVID-19 forced our hand to go faster than what we planned, which is good. Sometimes you need that kick in the butt to roll forward.”
And the Orsini’s team has no plans to slow down with its new online presence, even though customers will soon be able to re-enter their physical store.
“It’s been kind of neat to get creative and get out of the box,” Orsini said. “We’ve used this opportunity to look at what the people around us are not doing and look at what people that are much bigger than us are doing, and then figure out where we fit in that landscape.”