European Stores Begin to Reopen

PARIS — As lockdown measures slowly begin to ease up across Europe, retailers are rushing to prepare for the reopening phase, and it’s proving to be a complicated affair.

Seeking to virus-proof the shopping experience — and working conditions — owners are bulking up on supplies of disinfectants, hand sanitizer and masks, erecting plexiglass protection at cashier stands, calculating the number of customers who can browse a store while respecting social distancing, and sifting through a slew of local and national rules.

Germany began allowing stores to open two weeks ago, and retailers in Italy and France are gearing up for store openings starting May 11.

France’s Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Tuesday outlined details of the government’s plans to slowly open up activity in the coming weeks. Beginning May 11, people in regions deemed safe enough will be allowed to roam freely within 100 kilometers of their homes, even if they are urged to work remotely, from home, as long as possible, while stores will be allowed to open, with the exception of large shopping centers. Safety measures like wearing masks — the government is helping to finance their production — will be recommended for both workers and clients in places where social distancing is not possible. 

“We have to learn to live with the virus,” noted Philippe, who said the government plans to maintain a ban on large gatherings until September, gradually open schools, and keep cafes and restaurants closed until a later stage. A second phase of reopening will begin on June 2, when the government will revisit beach bans, restaurant closures and vacation traveling.

“We have been preparing for this the day we closed our doors,” noted Guillaume Houzé, communications and image director of French department store Galeries Lafayette group.

“We are in the process of drawing up a very strict protocol, that we are discussing with unions, of course,” he said, ticking off a list of measures including reduced access to entryways, protective plexiglass for cashiers, regular disinfecting of spaces, educating workers and clients about sanitary issues, and drawing up signage that will be scattered around the store to remind people of rules to respect. 

Unions, which are highly influential in France, have been active during the coronavirus crisis, advocating worker safety, and even prompting the closure of Amazon’s delivery services in the country by taking the online commerce giant to court over safety issues.

“We will have to mobilize all of our efforts to reassure and protect people, as well as to reassure clients who may have been spooked by all these weeks in lockdown, and by the difficult times we are all experiencing,” added Houzé.

“Given the size of our stores and the large number of visitors we can welcome, we really want to be exemplary when it comes to applying health regulations, for our workers on the one hand and clients, too, to ensure the best possible conditions,” he continued.

Opening stores could offer a form of respite for customers hankering after the return of some forms of normalcy, even if shopping may not be at the top of people’s lists, the executive observed.

“Reopening an emblematic store like the Haussmann flagship, it sends a strong signal for the return of activity, not just for Paris, but for the entire country — we are very favorable of this,” he added, referring to the group’s famed store on the Boulevard Haussmann. 

The executive acknowledged it likely won’t be an easy process, however.

“It’s going to be complicated,” was his prediction. 

“We will open!” he added.

Mango, the Spanish fashion retailer that operates across European markets, noted it is diligently applying safety measures as it gears up to open hundreds of stores across the continent, and has already reopened dozens.

“Extraordinary security measures will be taken, notably the tight control of numbers of clients in a store, and protective equipment for employees and clients,” said the apparel retailer, which last week began preparing to reopen nearly 500 stores by the end of the month, including in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. The chain continuously disinfects its stores, which operate with reduced hours, the company added.

Swedish fast-fashion rival H&M, meanwhile, sounded a more cautious note when questioned about its plans for resuming activity.

“We are, of course, excited about the prospect of opening stores but will only look to reopen when deemed safe to do so,” said H&M.

“Due to such dynamic developments, we are unable to provide information on individual locations we are opening,” added an H&M spokesperson in Germany, noting that the company regularly updates its online store locator to reflect openings. 

With the situation evolving from from one day to the next, the company stressed it is focusing on “flexibility.”

In Germany, the country has begun allowing shops smaller than 8,000 square meters, or 8,600 square feet, to begin reopening, but rules vary in different regions. 

In Bavaria, for instance, face masks are compulsory while shopping or using public transport. In Berlin, meanwhile, face masks are only compulsory on public transport, but not while shopping. In the country’s federal system, state governments decide on shop openings and anti-virus requirements.

Hugo Boss, which has opened some shops around Germany, is thus adjusting its plans according to each state’s different requirements, noted a brand spokesperson.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned citizens not to be too enthusiastic about the lifting of the lockdown, which she said would take place slowly and might need to be reversed if the infection count rises.

To prepare for openings around Germany, retailers and staff have been using colored tape on shop floors to indicate where customers should stand in order to keep their distance, posting notices about the number of shoppers allowed in a store, setting up hand sanitizer stations and boxes of free face masks, and seeking to ensure worker safety by protecting them with screens or supplying them with gloves and masks.

Some retailers have protested the rules that permit only smaller stores to reopen. A number of fashion retailers described the measure as unfair and uncompetitive, noting that larger hardware stores, garden centers and auto dealerships are allowed to open.

Struggling department store chain Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof sought to contest the rule in a Berlin court, but its claim was rejected. Other retailers say they will try to fight the measure in other states. In the meantime, a petition protesting the rule is circulating among fashion retailers.

Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof, which was forced to file for protective administrative insolvency earlier this month, has decided to partially open 74 stores in the country. The chain, one of the largest in Europe, is only opening smaller areas in its often multistory department stores, making a large range of products available in one, smaller space while sticking to the space-limit rules. 

Operators of smaller stores have expressed relief at beginning to reopen, even if a number of store owners have said they don’t expect a flood of consumers seeking to buy clothing.

With the Italian government gearing up to lift the lockdown on May 4, a series of rules and suggested measures is being released to enable fashion and accessories retailers — about 115,000 in the country — to reopen their stores on May 11.

In the case of a standard 430-square-foot store, the government will restrict access to only one client at a time, with the presence of a maximum of two employees. For small stores, the customer-to-staff ratio will decrease to one-on-one. For stores over 430 square feet, access will be set according to available space, with a recommendation for the creation of separated exits and entrances.

Staff members will be required to wear face masks and gloves, and a hand sanitizer dispenser will need to be available by checkout registers, touch screens and payment systems. The government also recommends placing an additional hand sanitizer dispenser at the entrance of the store, as well as in multiple locations for bigger shops.

Complete sanitization of the spaces, including air conditioning filters, will be mandatory before a store can reopen, and, when shops return to business, they will have to be cleaned twice a day, in the morning and at lunch time. In addition, door handles, registers, restrooms and windows will have to be disinfected with sodium hypochlorite and ethanol.

In addition, the government will recommend sanitizing clothes and accessories that were tried on or touched but remained unsold, with specific machines. Associations representing fashion and accessories retailers, however, are rejecting this measure, citing the high cost of these machines and the risk of damaging goods through the repeated disinfection procedures.

In the U.K., which hasn’t set a date for shop openings, the British Retail Consortium and one of the country’s largest unions, Usdaw, have drawn up a set of recommendations for retailers. These include limiting the number of customers so people can maintain two meters of distance between each other, encouraging people to shop alone when possible, marking floors to highlight distances to respect, making hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray available, closing changing rooms, limiting seating, and avoiding makeup and nail bars.

“Since the lockdown, many retailers have proved how shops can be run safely and effectively in line with the government’s social distancing advice,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive officer of the British Retail Consortium.

Next month the Pronovias Group is planning to reopen stores in select countries, including 28 in Spain, seven in Italy, seven in the U.S., two in Portugal and one in Poland. The high-end bridal company has also started a reopening strategy under the tag line, “Your dreams are safe with us.” That initiative has 10 guidelines such as thoroughly disinfecting stores and extending opening hours whenever possible, to limit the number of appointments at any given time.

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