A customer receives a squirt of hand sanitizer from an employee before entering a Trader Joe's grocery store in Washington, DC, USA, 31 March 2020. District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser has issued a 'stay-at-home' order to take affect 01 April 2020. The spread and containment efforts of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions to daily life across the globe.Coronavirus COVID-19 reactions in Washington, DC., USA - 31 Mar 2020

“Just because the city says that you are ready to open doesn’t mean that people are ready to work. I understand that financially that’s important but it’s that balance between the two.”

That is how one senior executive at a leading retail chain that is part of a conglomerate described his company’s slow-and-steady approach to mapping out the reopening of stores. While federal and state governments, the media and some c-suite executives are focused on the cataclysmic economic fallout from the shutdown and the need to get businesses running again, the fears of employees, who will help to get those sales ringing, are still an unknown to many.

With 3.6 million stores across all price points and dependent on all types of suppliers, retail supports 42 million jobs and represents $2.6 trillion of annual GDP in the U.S., according to the National Retail Federation. The retail industry directly employs 29 million Americans, making it the largest private-sector employer in the economy. And 45 percent of retail workers don’t work in a sales position.

While stores from the Carolinas to Alabama and Texas have allowed stores to reopen and others including California, are allowing curbside pickup — store employees remain worried about what a return to work will mean for them.

Earlier this month some workers at Amazon, Target, Walmart and other major companies staged a one-day walkout strike to voice their health-and-safety concerns. Amazon whistleblower Chris Smalls, who was instrumental in organizing that event, is launching The Congress of Essential Workers, a rank-and-file committee that will look out for essential workers from a variety of companies.

Like several workers interviewed for this story, the aforementioned senior retail executive requested anonymity as a means of job security. As for how store employees feel about reopening, he said, “That is a big piece and we don’t know yet, to be honest. But we’re going to be learning a lot in the next few weeks,” adding that staffers will be polled and called to assess how they’re doing.

Some of the New York retail associates who spoke with WWD said that the daily nature of their work — coming into close proximity with strangers, restocking clothes that had been tried on by others and maintaining a friendly facade at whatever cost — now seems to carry risks. Most said they expect to wear masks — some provided by companies with logos or from scrap collection fabric — and perhaps gloves upon their return, also altering the friendly employee-client relationship that many retail associates rely on in order to make the sale and thus their commission.

As retailers around the world are grappling with how and when they may reopen their doors to shoppers, employees are wondering about keeping themselves healthy. Well aware of how cases have flared up after restrictions were eased in China, South Korea, Germany, Michigan and other parts of the U.S., some retailers are planning to set up “A” and “B” teams. In the event that a person on either team tests positive, that team could quarantine for 14 days and the healthy team could step in to cover for the infected one.

One retail associate who works for an American luxury brand’s Madison Avenue flagship said that their employer holds weekly meetings to bring salespeople up-to-speed on reopening plans. Those currently include scheduling associates to work every other week, perhaps setting up a quarantine room where clothes that have been tried on or returned can be temporarily stored and offering company-provided PPE.

Some shoppers are already wearing masks. Others may be encouraged by store employees to do so.

Some shoppers are already wearing masks. Others may be encouraged by store employees to do so.  ETIENNE LAURENT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The salesperson is receiving 75 percent of typical wages, including commission, which would continue in the event of a partial reopening. In order to quickly sell off spring/summer merchandise upon reopening, their company intends to “loan” merchandise to customers by messengering large swaths of the collection for at-home try-on. Fabric-disinfectant sprays are currently being researched for items that are returned.

Overseeing about 350 employees — all of whom are currently furloughed — the senior executive who works for a conglomerate said the team had been relying on government resources but they are anxious to get back to work and to seeing clients. Not everyone is ready to come back to the stores, though, and the senior management team is trying to be respectful of that, he said. The parent company is developing consistent practices about whether employees will have the option of waiting to return, how long they will have to work things out personally before they are asked to return or “what happens next,” he said.

Mental health and health-care services have always been offered to employees, and the corporate office ramped up those services by establishing an HR and operations center and staff to handle COVID-19-related issues in March, including a 24-hour HR hotline. “We’re taking things super-slow and are prioritizing the health and safety of our workers,” he said. “There are a lot of moving parts on the mental health, personal health. All of those factors are being built into this in asking people to come back.”

The executive acknowledged that “people have been reaching out saying things like, ‘I’m really scared that I’m going to get sick,’ or ‘l’m having trouble dealing with this emotionally.’”

Store employees’ concerns about returning to work include the unknown variables about how proactive coworkers and the general public are and will be about shielding themselves from the coronavirus. In addition to wearing masks and gloves, workers need to be cognizant of how they interact with people. “It’s a whole new way of working, which is scary for people. Some of their concerns are, ‘I don’t know what’s going on in my coworkers’ home and I don’t know who the customer is,’” the retail executive said. “It’s the company’s responsibility to provide whatever protection and guidelines. But it is also your own responsibility to protect yourself, too.”

Community spread upon reopening is ample cause for concern, according to a retail associate who works for a U.K.-based luxury brand’s SoHo store in Manhattan. They recalled one recent winter when one co-worker came down with the flu and it quickly spread to two others. “We are inside sharing the same air and same surfaces, things can quickly spread,” the associate said. There also is concern about commuting — the associate said they would either bike or walk to work rather than take mass transit. They are currently furloughed and are receiving government unemployment checks, which they said “is working out well, I’m not in a rush to go back.”

Employees at a sportswear retail chain will be mandated to wear masks, and signage will encourage shoppers to do the same in adherence with government guidelines for each location. A hand-sanitizing station will be set up at the entrance to every store, health guards will surround the cash wraps, touchless pay options will be offered and merchandise will remain in the polybags and other shipping material, rather than steam them and display them.

A sales associate at Macy’s Herald Square store, who has worked there for 35 years, said he is concerned. “We get millions of people from Europe and from all over the world. Thousands of people come every day. And around Christmas it’s tens of thousands, who come to see the window displays, Santa Claus and everything else. If we still have social distancing then, how can we work?” he asked. “They should mandate masks and gloves. It’s not like when you go to Duane Reade where someone is behind the counter. I think Macy’s should provide masks for the customers, too — for their health and our health.”

In mid-March, employees in his department were discouraged from wearing masks and gloves for fear of scaring customers, he said. But wary of the seriousness of the pandemic and fearful of getting sick, he explained to his manager that he would be wearing gloves.

Fast-forward to today and masks and gloves have become part of daily life. They have not, however, become an accepted part of the retail experience. Some associates feel that customers will be more comfortable shopping if they see salespeople wearing masks, while others think it could scare some off. Salespeople unanimously said they hope customers will take their well-being into account and wear masks themselves. “It should be the same as going to Trader Joe’s right now,” said one associate. “They won’t let you in to shop without one.”

Sales associates’ interactions at Macy’s include returns, opening credit card accounts and taking care of payments. While there have been rumblings of the Herald Square flagship reopening in early June, nothing definitive has been set. The expectation is that lower-paid workers will be the first to be asked to return to work, the sales associate said. “I’m sure they’ll call back someone who is making $15 an hour first as opposed to someone who makes $40 an hour. I understand that because it’s business. They need the revenue,” he said.

In addition to the multiple points of contact that are required in selling, for example, a designer handbag, he also pointed out how the flagship’s main floor is the gateway to the world’s largest store with more than 2,000 employees and nine selling floors. There are also additional floors for offices. He questioned how the store might regulate the number of shoppers in any of its many departments, who are allowed to enter at one time, as has become routine for some big-city grocery stores. The sales associate said, “The store is so huge. Everyone walks into the first floor to get to the other floors. The Louis Vuitton shop is its own shop, as is Gucci. They can count how many people come in. Everything else is all open. So how do you separate the departments? Do you say, ‘Oh, you can’t come in, because we have such and such number of people in this department?’ I don’t know how they’re going to do that.”

Some shoppers are already wearing masks. Others may be encouraged by store employees to do so.

Some shoppers are already wearing masks. Others may be encouraged by store employees to do so.  Richard Vogel/AP/Shutterstock

Several furloughed retail employees who were interviewed spoke primarily about their eagerness to return to full-time gainful employment. With so much up-in-the-air about if and when they will go back to work, the safety aspects were not paramount. “It’s pretty much all speculation on my end,” one worker said.

That said, social distancing, masks, providing hand sanitizing stations and Zooming with clients whenever possible seem to be working in the Saks Fifth Avenue stores that have reopened, one employee said. Another Saks worker speculated about the possibility of making temperature-taking mandatory for flagship employees, reopening with a minimal staff and starting with 30-hour work weeks.

Another Saks employee noted that stores that have reopened still have customers, which is indicative of how consumers are still looking to shop and come to the store.

A Nordstrom employee, who works in one of the Texas stores that has yet to reopen, said that she is most concerned about what the company will do to keep employees safe. “I know they want the customers’ money so they will do what they can to protect the customers. But what are our precautions going to be? Nordstrom is pretty good. They treat their employees well, but we’re just waiting to see what will happen,” she said.

She hopes the fact that her store hasn’t opened reflects that Nordstrom is trying to develop a thorough and effective plan. New policies may limit the number of garments a shopper can try on. The number of shoppers allowed in stores at one time will be monitored and partitions may be installed at checkout areas, she said. “We haven’t gotten a full plan yet. We have no idea when we will go back,” she said. “The scariest thing is there are a lot of people walking around with COVID-19 without any symptoms. At first, there was the cough and you knew to stay away from people, who looked sick. Just not knowing what’s going to happen is pretty scary.”

The Nordstrom employee said she didn’t agree with everything being opened up so soon. She said, “I feel like I made it through the first wave. I don’t want to go back to work and get sick and come home to my son…if they call me back too soon and they don’t have a good plan, I don’t know if I’m going to go back. The waiting game is a little nerve-wracking.”

One management consultant who deals with retail clients said many companies are focused on the welfare of their employees and are using communications to stay connected. “I’m sure companies are focused on customers and clients, too. But every client that we work with is definitely focused on their employees. They’re just so many unknowns now. Wherever employers can take away some of those unknowns for employees, they’re trying to do that, too. There are definitely more frequent communications with their employees. They’re just staying close and trying to increase the feeling of connectivity. For most people, this is probably the least connected that they’ve felt with their offices ever,” she said.

Drea Ranek of Lusso, a boutique in the St. Louis area, has been in constant contact with her three co-owners, Zooming, discussing fulfillment issues, and working staggered shifts in the store cleaning and remerchandising in anticipation of the yet-to-be-set reopening. They plan to wear masks and expect county officials to advise others to do the same. The team plans to put up a sign requesting masks be worn and to offer disposable masks.

Three of the four owners have young children at home and some are in contact with older relatives. “We all have varying degrees of concerns about other people in our households. As soon as we start working with the general public, that is out of our hands.” Ranek said. “We’re mildly concerned. We’re trying to be careful so we’re not overly fearful.”

Apple Pay hasn’t always been an option but now shoppers will be encouraged to use it. Store hours will be shortened initially, due partially to home schooling and other demands that the pandemic has placed on employees. Her mother, who works at the store that Ranek started 20 years ago with her sister, will not return to work immediately. There will also be sensitivity to whether staffers are comfortable about returning to work. “We’re trying to be judicious. If any of our people don’t want to be there, they don’t have to be there,” Ranek said.

During the pandemic, the Lusso team has been DM’ing customers, texting them and making lots of phone calls, according to Ranek, whose father delivered gift-wrapped Mother’s Day purchases to customers’ front doors. As a luxury boutique, Lusso specializes in customer service. “Our customers are all in it for the experience. They love the experience and the customer service. These things are very hard to duplicate online,” she said. “We joke that we’re [the] women’s version of bartenders. We know about their kids and their families.”

That human connection has made Ranek hopeful that clients will return to the store as soon as they can. Some have told her as much. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, shoppers returned to Lusso partially since it is a quiet space and Ranek said she hopes that will happen again.

Another associate for a downtown New York men’s wear boutique was optimistic about the positive effects this crisis could have on shopping and consumption at large. “People aren’t making as much money so I think people will be more picky about their spending. We will be limiting the customers in-store at a time, so you are three employees in a store with three customers — everyone gets the attention they need and it’s a more wholesome experience all-around. I think shopping and the retail experience is going to get a little more intimate — it will be the nice thing to come out of this.”