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Reopen, sure — but how?

With hundreds of stores preparing to reopen in the U.S. within days or weeks, the National Retail Federation has launched “Operation Open Doors” to help them do it as safely as possible and with consistent approaches.

It’s an online solution center, launching Tuesday, on nrf.com providing operational guidelines and considerations for how to reopen stores that have been temporarily closed due to COVID-19. The guidelines were developed with input from hundreds of retail industry leaders, the NRF said Monday.

“The goal of Operation Open Doors is really twofold — to develop the guidelines to help inform retailers and other businesses as they reopen their businesses and learn from those that are already open, and secondly, to really engage the members in the process,” Matt Shay, president and chief executive officer of the NRF, told WWD on Monday.

“We’ve been working on this for weeks, and officially launched working groups one week ago today,” for health and safety; people and personnel; logistics and supply chain, and litigation and liability, Shay said. “A great deal of time and attention has been focused on the health and safety piece, but the other three groups are important, too, and it’s all applicable to both those businesses that have been opened and those not opened.”

Operation Open Doors is providing guidelines and recommendations for brick-and-mortar locations, distribution centers, as well as for the back office environments. “It reflects interests for a whole range of practices and operations retailers are involved in,” said Shay. “We really wanted to create a program that would engage retailers and all parts of their businesses. It’s a single resource applicable to retailers of all sizes and categories. There is no playbook for this. Everyone is learning from everyone else.”

Shay said the NRF is working closely with governors and mayors “so we can avoid the inconsistent applications and substantial variances that have been noticed at certain retailers. The inconsistencies is one of the potential impediments to opening the economy efficiently,” Shay said.

Inconsistencies have revolved around the use of PPE for customers and employees, hours of operations, regulating traffic into the stores, and other issues.

“Our goal is to be sure we don’t repeat these inconsistencies,” said Shay.

Matthew Shay

Matthew Shay 

In a letter to President Donald Trump and other administration officials and politicians revealing Operation Open Doors and expressing concerns, Shay wrote: “Reopening the retail sector and putting our economy back on track will require a gradual, phased-in approach. The smart, iterative strategies our members are building will help guide policymakers and business leaders through dozens of critical topics as we work to restore the American economy.

“Consistent guidelines across all levels of government — without over-burdensome regulatory schemes — are critical,” Shay wrote. “As a community, retailers are preparing for new processes, consumer behaviors and legal requirements or restrictions, where there was once no playbook. Our country must not allow a lack of resources, regulations that are not fit-for-purpose, and the fear of litigation to delay efforts to return to work and live safely and sustainably.”

Shay also noted that retail is the nation’s largest private-sector employer, contributing $3.9 trillion to annual GDP and supporting one in four U.S. jobs, or 52 million working Americans.

“The U.S. economy entered the COVID-19 pandemic with sound fundamentals on the heels of a record-breaking economic expansion,” Shay wrote. “Annual retail sales grew steadily over the past decade, with record retail sales during the 2019 calendar year and holiday seasons, and the Dow Jones Retail Index consistently outperformed the Dow Jones Industrials. Retailers are essential to the successful reopening of our economy and an eventual return to normal ways of life.”

Shay added that NRF’s retail leaders are primarily focused on customer safety, employee safety, and store and facility environment safety. “Consistent guidelines across all levels of government — without overburdensome regulatory schemes — are critical.”

In the letter, Shay advocated for social distancing and hygiene and encouraged “initial deployment of the minimal number of employees necessary to maintain physical distancing, fulfill customer orders and conduct government-recommended sanitization of high-contact areas. Retail workers will also prepare stores with signage, markings, plexiglass shields, audible announcements and/or other methods, as dictated by each store format, to support customer compliance of social distancing requirements. Standards temporarily limiting occupancy for customers based on total square footage and the National Fire Code may also be necessary.”

On personal protective equipment, Shay wrote, “As public health professionals recommend broader use of PPE such as face coverings or gloves, we recommend governments provide flexibility, especially as employers and customers navigate equipment shortages. Retailers intend to provide, and many already are providing, PPE in line with CDC guidance for their employees’ protection, but continued shortages are likely to hamper their efforts. As retailers endeavor to protect their employees and customers through use of PPE, similar responsibility should be incumbent upon Americans in public spaces while shopping.”

On health screenings and COVID-19 testing, Shay warned, “Like PPE, thermometers and diagnostic tests are in short supply. Federally consistent guidance, standardization of testing protocols and uniform documentation for employers will be critical to success. It will also take time to acquire equipment and establish protocols.

“As a community, retailers are preparing for new processes, consumer behaviors and legal requirements or restrictions, where there was once no playbook. Our country must not allow a lack of resources, regulations that are not fit-for-purpose, and the fear of litigation to delay efforts to return to work and live safely and sustainably,” Shay concluded.

Of the states that had ordered stores to close, South Carolina and Georgia led the way last week in allowing retailers to reopen, while Oklahoma and Alaska soon followed. On Monday, Tennessee, Montana and Mississippi also allowed stores to reopen. However, in all cases there are severe restrictions on the hours, the number of customers allowed into stores at a time and the type of PPE required to be worn by both shoppers and staff.

Belk said last week that its stores in South Carolina and Arkansas would reopen May 1 based on geographical area and on local and state restrictions. “To help protect our Belk community, we are following all recommended precautions from local health officials and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as we begin the reopening process,” the company said. “Stores will begin by opening from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and we will be limiting the number of people in the store to ensure social-distancing standards are observed. We recently launched curbside pickup at select stores, including all stores that will be open in May, which offers an additional limited contact shopping option.”

Other national retailers, however, including Macy’s Inc., have said they have no plans to reopen in those states for the time being given the continuing high number of cases of the coronavirus.

Further indicating the many different paths companies are taking regarding the reopenings, VF Corp. on Monday said that while it is getting ready “a careful and coordinated strategy for reopening stores,” it was further extending full pay and benefits to all its retail employees in North America and Mexico through May 30.

Meanwhile, it will increase pay through July 30 for its North American distribution warehouse workers.

In addition, VF is increasing pay through July for our U.S. and Canada distribution center associates who continue to enable our brands and businesses to serve our consumers and e-commerce business.

“As we plan for the eventual reopening of select offices and retail locations, we remain cautiously optimistic,” the company said in a statement. “We will only proceed with our reopening plans in locations where we can ensure a safe and healthy return for our employees and consumers.”

Late Monday, President Trump touted signs of progress in the fight against COVID-19 and addressed the nation alongside key retail leaders, who are helping to ramp up the testing capacity seen as crucial to reopening businesses.

“There’s a hunger for getting our country back and it’s happening,” said Trump from the White House’s Rose Garden with executives from Walmart Inc., Walgreens, CVS and others. “We want to get our country open and testing is not going to be a problem at all.”

Doug McMillon, ceo of Walmart, introduced himself as “a Walmart associate” and said the company has opened up 20 testing sites and would expand that to 100 sites by the end of May. The company said it can administer 20,000 tests a week once 100 sites are up and running. The ceo also gave a shout-out to the company’s apparel team, which procured 2.5 million surgical gowns for the COVID-19 fight this month and will have another six million by the end of next month.

Read more from WWD: 

The New COVID-19 Economics for Retail

Retail Bankruptcy Test Subjects Line Up

Britain’s High Streets in Peril as COVID-19 Ravages Physical Retail

WATCH: How Fashion Is Fighting the Coronavirus

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