CSA Exclusive: Camp talks about post-pandemic reopening strategy

Deena Amato-McCoy
SPECS Program Director
Deena Amato-McCoy profile picture
Camp's Fifth Avenue curbside cafe

Experiential retailer Camp is slowly getting back to business, but the company is taking a new approach to immersive retail. 

The retailer, which debuted in 2018 and blends themed hands-on family experiences with merchandise, was on an aggressive expansion plan at the start of 2020. Impacted by the the pandemic, however, Camp has shifted gears and is changing its experiential business model to stay relevant in a fluid landscape. 

Charlie Kwalwasser, COO of Camp, talked with Chain Store Age about how the company is approaching store reopenings, the value of new partnerships, and most importantly, how the company is inviting customers to safely interact with its brand.

What does your reopening plan look like?
We began re-opening stores last month, but operations are a bit different. We partially reopened four stores in July. We haven’t opened our location in The Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards because New York governor Andrew Cuomo has mandated large malls must have high-quality air systems that can filter out COVID-19 before they can re-open.

Our Fifth Avenue store in New York City will also stay closed until the end of the summer when we complete renovations. Instead, at this location, we are operating a street-side cafe where people can have ice cream and do arts-and-crafts.

We also plan to start operating CAMP’s experience portion, or playrooms, in our stores in Brooklyn, South Norwalk [Connecticut] and Dallas on a reservation basis within the next few weeks.

How has your long-term store expansion plan changed?
Originally, we planned to open two new stores this year — those openings have been pushed to 2021. We have also shifted to a new short-term plan. Later this year, we will roll out interactive drive-thru experiences in available parking lots. We foresee this concept growing over time and continuing to exist post-pandemic.

Camp built its reputation as an experiential retailer. How has COVID-19 changed your business model?
We are taking our experiences “outside” vs. indoors, and we are doing this through sponsorship programs. 

For example, through a partnership with Kroger Co., this month we launched the “Camp + Kroger Ice Cream Truck” across 15 locations throughout Dallas. This mobile experience features free ice cream, games and crafts, all while adhering to social distancing rules. To keep the program interactive, customers can track the truck’s whereabouts on our website and Camp’s Instagram stories.

We also partnered with Walmart to launch a free virtual summer camp program. Called Camp by Walmart, celebrities acted as camp counselors (including actor Neil Patrick Harris who took on the role of “head camp counselor”), and lead kids through sessions from arts-and-crafts to fitness, as well as other activities. The program, which launched in July, was free on Walmart’s app.

In September, we will partner with a financial services sponsor to introduce a new program in the Midwest.

How have your facilities management operations and priorities changed at open locations? 
We have stepped up our cleaning practices, and are instituting safety and cleaning protocols in excess of what is required by state and local agencies. 

Improved air quality is also a priority. In our Fifth Avenue location for example, we are redoing our entire HVAC infrastructure and enhancing our air filtration system. We are also integrating MERV-13 filtration in all of our stores.

Once we open our play areas, there will be new protocols as well.

What is your vision for how operations will change post-pandemic?
We’re giving a lot of thought to how to make it easier to shop in-store. Our brand is known as a place to “play,” but now we need to consider how to transition our hands-on experiences into being less tactical to uphold safety. 

For example, we may replace stocked merchandise on the sales floor with more product samples. Customers can work with our sales associates to make a purchase, and they can procure merchandise once they are ready to leave the store.