Blog / May. 19

Q&A with “Essential” Retail Execs Reveals Important Lessons for Reopening

Dave Bruno

Many nonessential retailers are getting ready to open back up, but the retail world they are returning to today is much different than the one they left before the lockdowns began.

In addition to making sure that all systems are up and running before stores reopen, new governmental and local regulations need to be taken into consideration. This means making policies that outline social distancing, store sanitization and payment processing procedures (to name a few).

To help nonessential retailers prepare, I recently spoke with executives from two essential retailers who remained open during the pandemic to gain insights from their experiences. Below is a Q&A from those conversations; one executive is from a tools and equipment retailer and the other is from an essential footwear retailer. Read below to learn some important lessons that can help nonessential retailers prepare for reopening stores post-lockdown.

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.


Q: Did customer behaviors change significantly, either monetarily or from a process standpoint?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer The pandemic acted as an accelerator for many things, including BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store). It has been a “forcing function.” In response, we have accelerated the rollout of our BOPIS program that was just in pilot before the crisis.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer Yes and no. Yes, customers’ attitudes changed in that they shifted more to ecommerce, which is traditionally not a huge part of our business. Our ecommerce business saw a 4x or 5x jump, kind of overnight. That has put some pressure on the distribution centers to pump out more orders than they normally would. In the grand scheme of things, people still come in, they still go to the register, they still buy things. The other weird shift that we’ve noticed lately is that people are shopping more during the week than they are on the weekend. They are trying to avoid the crowds.


Q: Did the U.S. economic stimulus have an impact?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – Prior to the stimulus, ecommerce comps were similar to pre-COVID levels. Once the first check hit on April 15, ecommerce jumped 90 percent compared to last year. Every week since then, there has been a 70 percent increase over last year.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – It’s hard to pinpoint everything to the stimulus, but we absolutely saw a massive boost once the stimulus checks started rolling through. I don’t know if that is a result of people being at home and they have more time to do home projects, but I think it’s a combination of that along with the stimulus and canceled travel. If you’re still getting an income, you probably have a little bit more disposable income because that spring break trip to Hawaii got canceled, and now you have an extra $4,000 in your bank account or whatever the case may be. We saw a massive boost, but it’s hard to tie it directly to the stimulus because it has extended much longer than we thought it would. The last time we saw this, we saw a boost for about 10 days, and we are well past that 10-day mark. I think the combination of stimulus and canceled vacations and spending more time at home have all contributed.


Q: Have you added curbside pickup or made other changes?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – Without a lot of robust process design or technology, curbside pickup was added to as many stores as possible. We also increased our ship-from-store fulfillment to help move seasonal inventory.


Q: Have you changed payment options?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – Contactless payments are definitely up – particularly for Apple Pay. In an abundance of caution, pin pads are also being wiped down after every transaction.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – We had a very interesting contactless journey overall. We were completely rolled out with contactless. We added the contactless option to the landing page for our pin pad but didn’t advertise it. We saw about a 15 to 20 percent take rate by putting it on there. Then when we upgraded payments last summer, we saw a bit of an uptick but not much. When the pandemic kicked off, we saw another 20 to 30 percent uplift in people’s usage of contactless.

In regards to wiping down pin pads between transactions, we have found that there is a bit of wiggle in the stands. So when you clean them, they shimmy a little bit and that will throw off the tamper detector. We have seen a massive increase in tamper-detected pin pads that you have to send back out to get repaired. So definitely, if you haven’t purchased them yet, go purchase those covers and come up with some really good guidelines for your store. If you don’t have pin pads in stock from a depot perspective, I highly suggest you start buying them now.


Q: Has anything changed with cash tender and handling?

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – We continue to take cash. We haven’t changed any procedures necessarily for accepting it. We have, of course, asked our associates to be gloved and masked up at all times, and we swap out those gloves. So we haven’t changed anything with accepting cash, but we definitely have the associates take more precautions. We added the sneeze guard to the cash wrap. We have also added a Plexiglas partition to the cash wrap for social distancing, to keep folks as safe as possible. To implement the plexi guards requires about a two-to-three-week lead time.


Q: Any changes to returns and refunds?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – All returned merchandise is being quarantined for 48 hours. There hasn’t been a significant change in customer return behavior.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – We sell a ton of work gloves, and we don’t see a ton of returns; however, we typically destroy that in the field anyways because it’s not worth the safety risk for our customers. We do returns on other things, but nothing has really changed other than it takes more time and we have to accommodate that in schedules and closing procedures.


Q: How are you handling items that shoppers open, try on, demo or handle in the store?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – In addition to quarantining all returned merchandise, fitting rooms require a key for access. Any merchandise that is tried on but not purchased is quarantined for 48 hours as well.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – We had a couple of demos that we shut down, but we still have a lot of display products. For the most part, associates don’t have to handle display products unless there is something wrong with them.


Q: Are you limiting customer counts in your stores? Are you deploying extra staff to count/control how many customers are in stores?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – Our stores are complying with local regulations where they exist and are targeting 25 percent of fire code capacity. We have not yet had any enforcement requirements, but will reassess when stores in tourist centers begin to reopen.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – Right now we are not, but we are looking at it. We have done things that people might have seen at their grocery stores. We’ve taped off six-feet measures so people stand apart. We are looking at tapping into the traffic counters and seeing what we can do to manage that and create alerts.


Q: How are you enforcing safety measures?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – Our policies and regulations are posted throughout the store. We have an inform-and-stand-down policy, where store associates can remind shoppers once if they are not being compliant, but no further action is taken to avoid escalation.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – For the most part people have been accepting of the safety measures. We haven’t had to get to a place yet where we have to stop customers. It’s fairly self-policing.


Q: How do you keep up with regional and local regulations?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – It is more than a full-time job. We have the equivalent of 1.5 full-time employees spending their days monitoring, collating and publishing information. We are conforming to the strictest rules and are monitoring all jurisdictions. We also have a corporate hotline that gives direct access to the store operations executive whenever urgent COVID-19 issues arise.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – We are only in the lower 48 states, so we don’t have international regulations to consider. We have spent a lot of time with legal and our risk office sifting through regulations. We try to use the strictest region as a guideline for everyone. The other thing we do for associates is we added a hotline that is manned by regional HR staff. What that has done is it has given stores a relief valve if they have questions related to COVID-19 or regulations.


Q: How do you keep store teams current on changing rules?

A: Essential Footwear Retailer – We have very regular contact with stores, including an all-store call with the CEO every two weeks. We also have daily calls with district managers.

A: Tools and Equipment Retailer – We’ve stepped up the frequency of conference calls, and we’ve tried to break them into smaller groups so that they can do more Q&A. We also do a daily posting to the stores that has a chart of regulations that can be downloaded and reviewed.


To hear more insights from these essential retailers, watch episode six of our Collaborative Conversations series, “Ok, my stores are opening again…now what?

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