Store closed sign

With more than 630,000 retail doors shuttered due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to Coresight Research, reopening stores is expected to be a gradual process. Industry experts also say companies face a host of challenges in regard to facilities management as well as consumers who have varying degrees of comfort and feelings of safety.

Regarding the latter, First Insight Inc. recently published a consumer survey gauging where shoppers feel safest. The report found that 54 percent cited grocery stores, followed by drug store chains at 50 percent and 45 percent at big-box retailers. The company noted that 43 percent said the same for “local small businesses and warehouse clubs, respectively,” while malls “were ranked lowest with only 33 percent of respondents saying they would feel safe shopping in these locations.”

Tom Buiocchi, chief executive officer of ServiceChannel, said safety needs to be a top priority. “Reopening stores is more complex than most people realize, especially since it has never happened at the scale or speed that it will happen now,” Buiocchi told WWD. “First, retailers need to ensure their facilities and operations meet new health guidelines. These vary from state to state, so it requires a tailored approach rather than one size fits all.”

Buiocchi said keeping employees and shoppers safe while mitigating risk requires stores to “regularly conduct and document deep cleanings, install temperature checks for employees and customers, and determine which stores need immediate attention and inspection for other issues regarding cleaning, safety, and health.”

The ceo also said many stores will need to execute this work with fewer employees and contractors “due to furloughs and illness, and they’ll need to coordinate the logistics remotely via Zoom and other collaboration tools.”

Once stores are fully open, retailers will need to rethink how they clean and sanitize them.  “The pandemic has raised cleaning requirements in retail, restaurants, grocery stores and other essential businesses like never before,” Buiocchi said. “Having a clean store that follows proper sanitation guidelines will be critical for keeping employees and customers safe and decreasing the risk of another outbreak.”

That means, at a minimum, retailers will need to regularly sanitize all surfaces that employees and shoppers can come in contact with. “In addition to meeting new health regulations, consumers will have heightened expectations for cleanliness at every location,” he added. “That means stores will need to be proactive about communicating the measures they are taking, and adopt technologies like cashless/cardless payments if they don’t already, to minimize contact and reassure consumers they are taking the necessary steps to stay sanitary.”

In regard to whether consumers will be required to practice social distancing in and around stores as well as wear face masks, it’s unclear at this point. But digging deeper into the First Insights survey shed some light on some specific consumer preferences regarding safety. 

First Insight found, for example, that “men feel much safer overall than women going back in-store.” The company said 58 percent of men feel safe shopping in a grocery store while “only 49 percent of women feel the same.”

“Similarly, 49 percent of men surveyed feel safe shopping at big-box retailers, versus 43 percent of women, the smallest percentage difference,” the company said in the report, adding that more men — 47 percent — “also feel safer than women (39 percent) shopping at local small businesses.”

With masks, 80 percent of those polled said they prefer to use their own face masks while “70 percent prefer to use their own gloves rather than masks or gloves provided by the retailer when shopping in-store.”

Greg Petro, ceo of First Insight, said as retailers and brands “grapple with big questions related to reopening stores, it’s clear from our findings that consumers have varying degrees of comfort within different store environments and formats.”

Petro said consumer visits to retailers “expand past essential retail like grocery and drug stores, other retailers, and malls in particular, need to be thinking of ways to inspire a sense of safety for consumers, and it will need to go beyond offering gloves and masks at the door.”

Other results included in the consumer survey revealed that overall concerns about COVID-19 are “subsiding slightly with a 6 percent decrease for the first time since February with 82 percent of respondents being worried on April 20, versus 87 percent on April 3, 2020.”

The report also showed that the number of shoppers pulling back on spending due to the outbreak has “leveled out, with 62 percent of respondents reporting cutbacks in spending on both April 3 and April 20.”