Now comes the hard part: persuading wary Americans that it’s safe to shop, especially under unusual restrictions.
This week, mall giant Simon Property Group said it will reopen 49 malls, but it will block off play areas and stroller stations. Macy’s will reopen 68 stores, but customers can’t try on dress shirts.
At Best Buy, customers will have to schedule an appointment at the 200 stores that are reopening, but they must stay six feet from sales associates. And if a shopper wants to try a gadget in the store, a Best Buy employee must wipe it down first.
Companies are trying to strike the delicate balance between propping up their stalled businesses and implementing policies that protect their shoppers. Retailers are responding to mixed signals from public officials about the threat of the virus and a polarizing debate nationwide over how and when to reopen the US economy.
They are also trying to revive plunging sales. Retail sales fell 8.7% in March, the worst monthly decline on record.
“People are scared and most believe it is too soon for many non-essential stores to reopen. An open store does not mean it will have shoppers,” said Matthew Freeman, associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University.
Cowen research surveys released last week found a “general lack of confidence among consumers in returning to key business industries,” including retail. Nearly 50% of shoppers plan to shop in stores for clothing after the coronavirus, but say they will avoid the dressing rooms, according to surveys by Jefferies.
Joe Bell, spokesperson for mall owner Cafaro, which on Wednesday reopened Governor’s Square Mall in Clarksville, Tennessee, acknowledged that some customers will choose to stay away from the mall out of fears of contracting the virus.
“There is a segment of the population that has become quite frightened,” he said. “They are going to stay home and continue worrying about catching the virus.”
Malls will look drastically different
Simon’s malls will look dramatically different, however. It will provide CDC-approved masks and individual sanitizing wipe packets at no charge to shoppers who request them, and provide temperature checks using infrared thermometers. It will take its employees’ and contractors’ temperatures, require them to wear masks and limit customers to one person per 50-square-feet.
There will be social distancing markers throughout the mall. Food court seating will be limited. Reusable trays or silverware won’t be used. In bathrooms, every other sink and urinal will be taped off.
Still, some public health and retail analysts say the safety measures Simon and other malls have outlined do not go far enough.
Peter Raynor, professor of environmental health studies at the University of Minnesota, said Simon’s plan to limit occupancy to one person for every 50 square feet of floor space “seems like far too many people.”
“You would have a hard time maintaining your physical distancing with that density,” he said.
Even public officials in Indianapolis, where Simon is headquartered, have expressed concerns about its plans.
Shopping by appointment
Retailers moving ahead with reopenings are not entirely sure what to expect from shoppers.
“It’s a very fluid situation, so it’s too early to give precise timings for full re-openings,” said a representative of Bed Bath & Beyond. “We will continue to take guidance from government and public health officials and build on the safety measures we have in place” for home delivery.