Is It Safe To Go Back Into Stores Yet?

Elgort/Conde Nast via Getty Images
Two women shopping after the Stores Reopening After Coronavirus

As states begin to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, fashion boutiques across the country are toiling with ways to boost sales while prioritizing safety. With regulations varying from state to state, innovative thinking has never been so important as owners navigate this new shopping landscape. How smaller boutique stores consider reopening after coronavirus is particularly pertinent as unlike major retailers, they don’t have the same access to financial backing during these troublesome times. This has forced them to get more creative with how to operate amidst COVID-19, abiding by the various regulations state by state while implementing unique ways they can continue to connect with customers.

Closures and stay home orders have hit the fashion industry hard, leaving many to question whether or not fashion businesses can survive the pandemic. Zara, for instance, has announced the permanent closing of 1,200 stores nationally to prepare for a post-COVID landscape focused on digital sales. Larger luxury brands are challenged as well as purchases have decreased drastically over the past few months: Not many consumers see value in purchasing an expensive handbag when leaving the house is not an option for the foreseeable future.

While COVID-19 hasn’t stopped spreading across state lines, the strictness of regulations has impacted where cases are spiking, and where businesses are in the beginning phases of safely reopening. New York, for instance, saw a steady decline in the number of coronavirus cases since implementing stay-at-home orders, yet that number has begun to rise again, promoting new restrictions such as prohibiting indoor dining at restaurants, as well a policy requiring all to wear masks when in public. Arizona, on the other hand, opted to forgo most regulation, joining the ranks of nearly 30 other states that have peaked in recent weeks. The CDC has provided advice for small businesses that have begun to reopen, outlining numerous safety precautions they should take. Among their recommendations is that to "plan to implement practices to minimize face-to-face contact between employees if social distancing is recommended by your state or local health department. Actively encourage flexible work arrangements such as teleworking or staggered shifts." The CDC also recommends performing routine cleanings, providing education on best safety practices, and designating a "workplace coordinator who will be responsible for COVID-19 issues and their impact at the workplace."

As the United States faces a rapid influx of new COVID-19 cases, TZR spoke to three boutiques in three different parts of the country to learn how they’re adjusting to this new fashion landscape and how it’s impacted their overall business.

How Are Boutiques Approaching Re-Opening: Hampden

Nestled on the famous King Street of Charleston, South Carolina, Hampden Clothing has served as a go-to destination for both residents and tourists over the years. Owned by Stacy Smallwood, the boutique’s delicately curated collection of ready-to-wear, shoes, handbags, and accessories offers both a chic and effortless style that’s appealed to many. But with tourism down and residents no longer needed to revamp their summer wardrobes, Smallwood knew she needed to pivot fast.

“One of our favorite things to do is to connect with clients and to style them in the dressing rooms ... I think all of us miss that personal connection with our clients,” Smallwood tells TZR. “We're part of their lives and we've seen a lot of people through everything from graduation dress to their first job outfit to their baby and wedding shower, now we don't get to see them as much.”

With stay-at-home orders lifted early on, Hampden was able to reopen on May 4, making it one of the first boutiques to do so. This meant that Smallwood and her team had no guidelines or role model to follow in terms of running a successful business amidst the pandemic. Their first step was to reevaluate store hours, choosing to remain only for only five days a week. All employees are required to wear masks, regardless of state policy on whether or not it is mandatory to do so. To maintain social distancing within the store, the Hampden team has been using rolling plant racks to give shoppers somewhere to put clothing they’re interested in purchasing instead of having an associate hold onto items for them so that they could safely try on in the store. “This kind of allows them the freedom to explore and go and not feel like someone's hovering over them,” Smallwood explains.

This has also given Smallwood the perfect opportunity to utilize their new VIP room upstairs, which was part of a new expansion that opened March 13 — and was subsequently closed March 16. Customers may call and make an appointment, then go straight to the VIP room where samples are already bold in their style and size.

Hampden’s website has been its saving grace, Smallwood explains. Every single piece from their 10,000 square foot property is listed online, allowing customers to add items to their digital shopping cart which they can then share with the in-store team who will pull those looks for their private styling sessions. “That helps even with efficiency and customers feeling like they don't have to be in here as long so or even wander around.” Another large part of business has been sending personal styling boxes to customers who can provide feedback on the items they receive.

Another new offering: Virtual styling sessions via Zoom. Through this, Smallwood is able to look right into her customers’ closets and personally help them pick out the best look for whatever occasion they have coming up. “That's been fun because I feel like we're taking the time to almost style the pieces we sent them to the pieces that they already have in their closet,” she adds. “I've kind of virtually helped them clean out their closet. I think people really appreciate that because it's not a service we charge for. We're just connecting with a client so we can be there whenever they need.”

Overall, as difficult as the past few months has been, they’ve also shown Smallwood the importance of Hampden and the personal clientele experience they’ve developed.

“We don't get the same support as bigger retailers as far as markdown dollars or gross margin guarantees. We're doing this because we love it and we put our heart and soul in it and we are in the store every day. I'm anxious to see where things evolve and go, because as most people have said, Uber came out of a big recession, like some of the biggest ideas have, and I'm going to keep pushing to try and come up with more.”

How Are Boutiques Approaching Re-Opening: The Plus Bus

Located in Highland Park, Los Angeles, The Plus Bus boutique is one of the few destinations dedicated to serving women over a size 14. And thanks to the plus-size community’s prevalence online, switching to a digital-centered business model has been the key to staying afloat amidst the pandemic.

“When we locked down, I literally took two huge racks of clothes and a mannequin, threw it in my car and turned my garage into a mini studio,” says Marcy Guevara-Prete, co-owner of The Plus Bus, “and started shipping products and posting these pieces to Instagram. Very quickly we saw that there are people across the country that want these clothes: not only plus-size clothes, but sustainable plus-size options.”

Pre-pandemic, utilizing social media was not a priority for The Plus Bus. But since California’s stay-at-home order was issued in March, doing so has proved to be their saving grace. After nearly two months of shipping product, however, the boutique reopened on June 7 in a new space — one with more room, thankfully, that’s helped to further enforce social distancing precautions.

Masks are mandatory for both staff and customers. If a customer enters without one, an employee will provide one to them so that they may continue to shop. Hand sanitizer is available throughout the entire shop, Guevara-Prete’s team has made it a priority to constantly wipe surfaces down, especially if a customer has just been in the boutique.

“The main concern I’ve had is for my staff and what their comfort level is, and [we’ve been] kind of delicately addressing that,” she explains. “They were all really ready and eager to work and have been staying six feet apart. Only one person works at a time and makes sure to wear their masks.”

But The Plus Bus’ new focus on digital has also impacted what’s expected from each employee during their shift. With orders coming in from Alaska to Alabama, it’s a whole new ballgame to tackle.

“Our staff knows that it is of very high importance that each day during your shift, if there are no customers in the store ... we are taking photos of inventory [to post online].”

Through this whole process, one fact has been made very clear to Guevara-Prete: Creativity is essential as a business owner.

“It was incredibly important to just realize that if we wanted our business to succeed and not just stay alive, but thrive through COVID, we were going to have to work really hard.”

How Are Boutiques Approaching Re-Opening: Pilot and Powell

Prior to reopening (at only 25 percent capacity to start), New Orleans-based boutique Pilot and Powell ensured not only to have their entire store sanitized, but also to have hand-washing stations installed throughout it. Masks with the brand’s logo were ordered for all customers to wear while shopping. And to further stress safety, the boutique originally reopened to appointments only, which has remained their primary model since.

To schedule a private appointment, customers can reach out to the Pilot and Powell team via text, phone call or direct message. Only one private session will be held in-store at a time to decrease the amount of people on the floor. The team will then pull an assortment of pieces for the customer to try on and place them into a private room. After the try-on session is over, every single one of those items will be quarantined for 24 hours and disinfected.

“We have what is called a clean pod; It's a UVC sterilizer. It kills the bacteria within like 30 seconds, so we do that for each piece and then we steam it as well just to be overly cautious before putting it back,” explains Kathryn Bullock Joyner, the boutique’s co-owner. “We also wipe down all the hangers with Clorox wipes after they've been in a fitting room. We have three fitting rooms, so we rotate which ones are being used so that they can all be cleaned thoroughly after each appointment.”

Prior to reopening, Pilot and Powell also provided curbside pickup, as well as personal box deliveries, which the team is ready to resume should conditions in New Orleans get much worse in the coming weeks.

“We are so happy that our clients that have been wonderful clients from the beginning have been supportive and really stuck with us through this entire course,” adds co-owner Coeli Hilferty Boron. “We’re looking forward to more of our virtual appointments [with designers] and kind of reconnecting with our sales reps and seeing what our designers have to offer at this point, and how they're kind of interpreting it as well.”