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Reopening Reflections

As retailers nationwide reopen amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic they are entering the new normal—one filled with high hopes, stark fears, many unknowns, enormous challenges, tectonic consumer behavioral shifts and a hungering for any port in the storm. Here, 11 leading retailers from across America reflect on what’s gone right, wrong and unexpectedly, and what their strategies and expectations are going forward.

J. Stephens, Valencia, CA

Gary Hauss, owner

Closed: Mar. 18

Reopened: May 29 (two stores), June 12 (four stores), June 19 (two stores). Eight stores yet to open.

Why the staggered reopenings? We opened the first two locations—an Ecco concept store in Scottsdale, AZ, and a New Balance concept store in Summerlin, NV—because both states were opening and both locations had at least 70 percent occupancy around them. They were also open-air locations where we felt there’d be a better chance for success.

How’s business? The first week, the Ecco location dropped around 60 percent over last year, whereas the New Balance store increased just over 30 percent. We also went down to six days a week and from 74 hours to 40 hours. So the increase in the New Balance store was quite amazing. We also opened with only the manager working to keep payroll down. By the second week, we added the seventh day and a second person to the New Balance location. By the third week, we also added the seventh day to the Ecco location. The next four locations we opened also had stores around us open, and three were in open-air locations. We decided to open one enclosed mall store, because Las Vegas was pushing for us to reopen our New Balance store on The Strip. We now have all three of our New Balance locations reopened. Those locations have gotten mixed results. A couple have been pretty good and a couple haven’t. We’ve only reopened two of our seven multi-branded J. Stephens locations so far. Business is tough in those stores for a couple of reasons. First, they are in resort areas and there are no tourists in those towns. They are also in desert areas, which makes them subject to extremely high heat.

Overall mood of customers? Moods vary from different concepts to different parts of the country. Some customers in our Arizona locations are upset that our staff is wearing masks. Also, when the governor issued a mandate (June 17) for people to wear masks outside, we’ve seen a big drop-off in traffic. Our customers are a more mature and more cautious about going out in public. Other customers are just thankful we’re open, and are very patient with only one employee working in most of the locations.

Practice safe shopping? Many of our stores have small footprints (1,200 square feet), so social distancing can be tricky. Our employees must wear masks and we have gloves if they want. We have hand sanitizer for employees and customers. We ask our employees to wash their hands thoroughly after every customer and we’re wiping down the shoes and hard surfaces of the stores constantly.

Has ecommerce been a safety net? When we first shutdown our online business fell as well. Then, within a few weeks, it came back strong and continued that way for about five weeks. But it started to drop again when Amazon started putting all softgoods to the back of the pack and PPE products to the front. More recently, the challenges are vendors getting very aggressive with their pricing on their DTC sites, which has definitely impacted our online sales.

Second wave preparations? We aren’t making any preparations for closing again because if it happens, we’ll do exactly what we did the first time we closed. We’ll furlough all employees of stores that close and wait for them to be allowed to reopen again.

Dark clouds on the horizon? I think we have a very tough road ahead of us. Our first obstacle: half of our stores are in indoor malls, and I believe they’ll be the last places to get the traffic back. Second, for older consumers it’s going to take a vaccine or at least something that will treat the virus before they feel safe to do normal shopping. We project for the rest of this year to do 50 percent less than last year. Thus far, we are doing much better than that, but we haven’t opened the stores that we feel will take the biggest hits.

Plenty of challenges ahead? The biggest challenge now is navigating the needs of retailers, landlords and vendors. Everyone wants their monies and yet we just shut down for nearly three months with almost no income coming in yet having all these expenses due. How do we pay for that? Worse, in many cases vendors are selling that same product at anywhere from 30 to 75 percent off on their DTC sites. But keep in mind, vendors most likely haven’t been paid yet and have gotten a tremendous amounts of cancellations from retailers. Sitting on all that inventory and not getting paid by retailers forces them to drop prices dramatically on their DTC sites.

Any solutions? Part of the solution would be for vendors to start the dating from when the retailer reopens and work with them on assisted margins. Now how does the vendor get rewarded? Since the retailer has limited access to cash and customers, first try not to cancel any fall orders. Vendors have already bought the goods and most likely will have to bring them in. Second, space out deliveries so you can manage your payments better. Third, make sure the vendors who play ball with you aren’t forgotten. Put their product to the front of the store and bring out one of their shoes to every customer. As for landlords, you know what you’ll need to survive from them, but how can you give to them without hurting your company? Maybe in return for rent concessions, you give longer terms on the back end, which they’re likely going to need.

None of us—vendors, landlords and retailers—are out of the woods, and it can get worse before it gets better. So for the rest of 2020 we need help each other to get through this. The saying, “We’re all in this together,” has never been more true!

Lucky Shoes, Akron, OH

John Luck, president

Closed: Mar. 20

Reopened: May 12

Define closed? Our stay at home order was from Mar. 20 to May 12, but around Apr. 20 I got sick of sitting at home. I started calling customers, making shoe deliveries and scrapping for every sale I could make. We applied for and given permission by our county health departments to open a couple of stores for curbside pickup and appointment-only beginning May 1 to service essential workers and medical referrals. I emailed HR departments at hospitals and local Chamber of Commerce departments. We also called our referring doctors. So, we were able to do some business while we were “closed.”

Pandemic pivots? We got a temporary ecommerce site up and running around May 11, and we’re happy with the results. Our permanent site should be ready by early July. We also put some clearance stuff up on some third party sites as an additional revenue stream.

Reopening grand? The first couple of weeks were pretty scary, but business has improved every week. I’m writing this on a Friday (late June), and we are currently up for the week. I had better find some wood to knock on.

What’s selling? Athletic is through the roof for men [up 24 percent] and women [up 79 percent] since reopening. Oofos and Revere are new brands for us that are doing surprisingly well. Keen kids’ sandals are strong. Another bright spot: Vera Bradley face masks. We have a 37-time turn! We just received 500 or so more today, and that’s not enough! On the flip side, sandals, dress and casual are all very tough for us right now.

How would you assess the general mood of your customers? Most have been an absolute pleasure. They’ve been supportive, friendly, patient and tolerant. Some have been a little grumpy about this or that, but that’s a small percentage. We are seeing a strange combination of pent-up demand mixed with zero need. No one is going on vacation, having big weddings or buying new outfits. All of these are hurting sandal sales, especially.

Practice safe shopping? We rearranged seating areas to ensure proper distancing and we require customers to wear masks like we are. We’ve also limited the number of customers in the store at one time. Our sales team is under orders to protect themselves and our customers at all times. We are going through a lot of hand soap and cleaning supplies!

What has been the hardest aspect to getting the 16 stores up and running again? It is all hard. Our buy was great when we made it, but it is wrong for today’s reality, so we have to take some lumps in certain categories. We have had to cancel shoes this year, and I hate that! We have to be very careful with our marketing, because we need a controlled stream of customers for safety’s sake. The hardest part emotionally has been leaving some employees furloughed longer than others. We simply do not have the work to bring everybody back right now.

Second wave fears? I believe we are headed for a rise in cases this fall. So we are raising as much cash as we can. Hopefully, we as a society can attenuate it so it doesn’t become a spike and we don’t have to close.

You have reasons to be optimistic about your business going forward because? From an internal perspective, I think these tough times have made our organization stronger. We have had some truly heroic efforts from our team. Externally, we’ve had an influx of younger customers that are being very accepting of the way we do business, and I’m pretty excited about our ecommerce site.

What’s your outlook for the rest of the year? Originally, I was thinking 30-40 percent decreases, but now I am thinking 10-20 percent. I think we are in for a rough ride for fall, though. I believe that next spring will be better for retailers, but vendors may still have a tough time due to the amount of product that will not get cleared this spring. Fall 2021, hopefully, we’re back to normal.

Parting shot? Change is constant, and it can be violent. Accept the new circumstances, adapt quickly and do the best you can. It’s all you can do.

Schuler Shoes, Minneapolis, MN

John Schuler, CEO

Closed: Mar. 16

Reopened: Mid May

Pandemic pivots? We focused on on-line sales with free shipping and/or curbside pickup, plus live chat was how we kept some cash flow during that time. Our on-line sales were up

Reopening grand? We’re encouraged as business is about 65 percent of last year and growing steadily. We’re bringing back more employees to our nine locations every day and hope to continue as sales increase. And that’s a bit difficult to achieve with 50 percent of max capacity and all the safety concerns. The BLM protests were another hit to our progress and set us back a day or two, but not significantly. I’m very happy to be open again.

What’s selling? Athletic styles by New Balance, Brooks and Hoka One One, and Birkenstock have definitely been our hottest sellers. 

General mood of your customers? Customers are very pleased that we’re open again, even though it’s a whole new way of doing our sit-and-fit model. We have hosts at the doors controlling the number of customers, people are asked to wear masks and sanitizer hands etc., etc.

Second wave fears? We’re ready to deal with the next wave, if it comes, as we have learned a lot. I just hope and pray it does not happen.

Rack Room Shoes, Charlotte, NC

Mark Lardie, CEO

Closed: Depending on the 34 states and local ordinances, stores were closed from four to eight weeks beginning in late March.

Pandemic pivot: We rapidly increased our focus on our online business and our customers reacted. We saw weekly increases of 200 to 500 percent.

Reopening grand? We are surprised and delighted that our customers feel safe in the trusted Rack Room Shoes environment; our reopened stores are delivering double-digit comp gains in June. All our center types—malls, strip centers, outlets and free standing stores—are positive comp. Certainly, our larger tourist stores have continued to suffer from a lack of traffic due to the continued downturn in overall tourism.

What’s selling? With most of our families in some sort of stay-at-home mode, our business has taken on more of a decidedly athletic and casual look. Our sandal business, of course, continues to be very strong.

Is there a pent-up demand, or are shoppers holding back? After the extended lockdown, many of our families are in need of new shoes. The balance between this and safety can likely be seen in our lower traffic counts. The trips they make to Rack Room Shoes are clearly buying trips, as opposed to window shopping.

Practice safe shopping? Our
marketing team created a complete in-store sign package with social distancing guidelines, floor and window clings to identify traffic patterns and appropriate spacing. We also observe strict capacity limitations, on-going cleaning and mask usage by all our associates.

What has been the hardest aspect of getting hundreds of stores up and running again? Ensuring a safe environment for our associates and customers. We have taken an unwavering stance that these two issues override any business concerns. Proper levels of cleaning, capacity limits and reduced hours are all sales limiters; however, they are necessary to protect everyone’s health.

Second wave fears and contingency plans? Unfortunately yes, we have a road map now for that process and, in the very unlikely event that does come to be, we are prepared to follow all federal, state and local guidelines.

Reasons to be optimistic? We believe our trusted brand, Rack Room Shoes, is well positioned for the current situation as well as the complete return to normalcy. The efficiency of our shopping experience and the simplicity of our Real People messaging clearly resonates with the families we serve.

Outlook for the rest of the year? We are guardedly optimistic that while the content and mix of our sales are altered, our business should become more predicable throughout the year.

Biggest takeaway from this reopening process? We have a great team of very dedicated associates. Our store management group remained with us on payroll throughout the closure and this gave us the ability to reopen as soon as it was deemed safe by state and local officials. Their focus and positive attitude amaze me daily.

Comfort Plus Shoes & Footcare, Leawood, KS

Matthew Gold, president

Closed: Mar. 24

Reopened: May 11

Coping in Kansas? The response to the virus has been hyper-local. The shopping center where our store is located is practicing tremendous social distancing, mask wearing, etc. People walking in and out of the nearby grocery store, drug store, etc. almost all have masks on. But the grocery store near my home, about 15 minutes from my store, is about 40:60 mask, no mask.

Reopening grand? Some days it feels like the old normal and some days customer flow indicates we’re clearly experiencing a pandemic. Overall, we’re at about 60 percent of normal. This is our trunk show season, which are some of our best days of the year, and we’ve had to cancel those events. That’s a big hit. But it’s been heartwarming to interact with our customers again. Many said that our store was the only place they’d been, other than the grocery store, in months! They expressed how comfortable our sanitary efforts had made them feel and, in turn, they didn’t hesitate to keep trying on and buying. What’s been really touching is how much folks just want to chat. It’s so unnatural as humans to be so distant and not socialize. There’s clearly a pent-up demand for socializing.

And a pent-up demand for shoes? Yes! The folks that are coming out are coming out to buy. It’s a “while I’ve made the effort to get out, I’ll buy another pair or two” mindset. They aren’t window shopping. It’s more necessity shopping.

Surprises? Returns are way down. People might think it’s unsafe to return product or are not enthused about risking to go out again. Also, weekdays are the new Saturday. We’re consistently having peak days midweek while normally our top day, Saturday, has been quite a bit down. Working from home allows one to simply take an hour break and go shopping, and I think folks are also focusing on friends and family time on the weekends.

What’s selling? New Balance, Brooks, Finn Comfort, Birkenstock and Joya have been really strong. The brands that aren’t as ‘online-able.’ Birkenstock is certainly simple to buy online, but it seems like folks are just more eager to get them immediately, and they also want to buy local.

Practice safe shopping? We removed most of our seating and set up six fitting areas designed to maintain distance. We wear masks and we highly, highly, highly request that our customers wear masks. We have a lot of high-risk customers and veterans. We find that the inconvenience of wearing a mask is worth it than taking a risk with the unknown.

The hardest aspect to getting up and running again? Projecting what things will look like in a few months, or even a few weeks. It’s a highly volatile time and things can change on a dime. The shutdown happened so fast. The rug was pulled out from underneath us, and it’s just very difficult to bring in a lot of inventory when we don’t know what things will be like in the future.

Second wave fears? Beyond minimal fall pre-books and tightening our open-to-buy, it’s very difficult to prepare for a fall spike. But we can weather another shutdown, and better than the first one.

Regrets? Closing was the right thing to do. It was a social responsibility and our staff was simply not comfortable helping customers with so much unknown. But we were wrong on the timing of our ecommerce launch. It’s been in the works for a long while and we missed out not having it up and running during lockdown as consumer behavior changed.

Biggest takeaway? That many of our vendors really care about us little guys. The response has run the gamut from extended terms and special buys to zero accommodations and no shipping to independents during peak season.

Is this pandemic your great challenge ever? Absolutely! I don’t think any business is prepared for such a significant decrease in revenue for such an extended time.

Better days ahead? Optimism is high as the appreciation from our customers has been immense. It makes it easier to feel optimistic when you feel the love from customers.

The April/May 2024 Issue

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