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SPECS 2020 Exclusive: Retailers adopt new store strategies to deal with pandemic

It’s unanimous: Retailers need to modify the strategies they use to safely reopen and operate stores following an emergency.

That was the message presented by a panel of retail operators at Chain Store Age’s SPECS Show 2020, which was featured on an all-virtual platform from Aug. 4-6.

Speaking at the SPECS session, “Checklist for Emergency Store Closures and Reopenings,” the panelists discussed the many curveballs — from plumbing, insects and rodent issues to graffiti on store exteriors — they faced in the race to reopen stores following the pandemic. These and other issues prompted retailers to develop new “checklists,” or guidelines that will help them to temporarily close and quickly reopen stores in case of an emergency going forward.
Tighter workforce communications, improved sanitization of shared spaces, and technology adoption are among the strategies that have earned a place on their lists.  

Improved workforce communication. COVID-19 forced non-essential retailers to temporarily close their doors for the safety of staff and customers. However, retailers such as Untuckit realized the importance of keeping its lines of business up-to-date on expectations, as well as to encourage employee engagement during uncertain times. 

“From my standpoint, it was important to stay in touch with the workforce, set the tone for what to expect, and how this situation differed from [prior] industry or weather-related closures,” Brent Paulsen, Untuckit’s managing director and head of retail, said during the session. 

In addition to internal teams, Untuckit also kept the lines of communication open with landlords and business partners outside of its stores.

Redesigned shared spaces. Knowing the increased importance consumers now put on cleanliness, retailers are approaching sanitization strategies from a variety of angles. For example, store-level restrooms are getting makeovers complete with touchless sinks, towel dispensers and hand sanitizers. 

Fitting rooms are also under scrutiny — an issue that Untuckit is tackling by stepping up the cleaning of used rooms, as well as thoroughly sanitizing tried-on garments with steamers.

“Pre-COVID-19, stores would be cleaned before stores opened and after they closed,” Paulsen explained. “Today’s reality is our shoppers need to see us cleaning, wiping and sanitizing so they know they are walking into a safe environment.”

While Ross Stores hasn’t yet reopened its fitting rooms, the off-price retailer is evaluating how to sanitize returned merchandise. 

“We are exploring using UV lights to sanitize returned merchandise,” Joshua Witte, said Ross Stores’ director of store operations, brand maintenance and repair. “Once sanitized, we would segregate product for 72 hours before recirculating it onto the sales floor.”

This opportunity fits well within Ross’ many new safety initiatives. “Like many companies, we are making an entire change when it comes to delivering safety and comfort for customers and employees, from social distancing and PPE [personal protective equipment] usage to temperature checks for employees and contractors,” Witte added. 

Embracing innovation. The key to surviving — and thriving — post-pandemic is being accessible and “meeting the customer where they want to be met, regardless of channel,” according to Whitney Livingston, COO, Centennial Real Estate.

For Centennial, this means using technology to safely streamline the shopping journey across its properties. This includes the company’s “Retail to Go” solution, a virtual marketplace based on Centennial’s physical properties that it expects to launch in the fourth quarter.  Merchandise is aggregated based on category, helping consumers navigate among stores carrying specific items. It also safely gets merchandise into the hands of their customers. 

When shopping for jeans for example, the consumer uses the tool’s filters to find their desired size, style and wash.

“The marketplace will present the consumer with all options available in specific stores within the shopping center,” Livingston explained. “The shopper purchases an item through a specific retailer, then chooses a delivery option: ship to home, pick-up in-store, or curbside pickup at a dedicated location at the mall.”

The company is also open to adding new fulfillment options, from personal lockers that require a digital passcode to access entry to the possibility of automated delivery robots, she said.

“We look at technology through two lenses: Will it optimize business from an operations perspective, and will it enhance the experience of our tenants?” Livingston added. “We typically play offense when it comes to technology investments. However, COVID-19 has moved us into defensive mode, with a focus on solutions that help us solve immediate needs.”

Untuckit, which considers itself an early adopter of technology, is no stranger to curbside pickup. However COVID-19 has expedited the importance of the service.

“We have had the service for some time, but we were never ‘forced’ to use it,” Paulsen said. 

Besides making contactless pickup a top offering for its customers during the pandemic, Untuckit expects the service to hit a tipping point during the critical holiday season.

“During the fourth quarter, we will need to balance [store] occupancy levels” as customer traffic increases, he explained. “Our stores are small, so contactless pickup could be one way that we can better manage internal occupancy and highly accelerated customer traffic.”

With so many innovative choices available, Untuckit is focused on adopting solutions that will have the best benefit customers, and still provide a strong return on investment.

“All technology investments are ROI-focused, and we look forward to returning to previous 12-to-18 month ROIs we were used to,” he added.

Want to hear more? Registered SPECS attendees can click here to listen to the discussion in its entirety.

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