New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo hinted that we might possibly be able to open the Tri-State economy by the middle of May, when our lockdown is scheduled to lift. This is a welcome and interesting turn of events, as it coincides with the anniversary of the last performance of P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” which was also held in New York – at the Nassau Coliseum May 21, 2017.
While the closing of the Circus may (or may not) be considered a date to the anniversary, there is little doubt that the visual image of what we experienced for years in the world of retail, will no longer be the same. Performers inside and outside the arena will now be wearing masks. This may seem strange to all of us, but the future of retail will largely depend on how well the attendees perform.
All this anticipation brings us to the four basic questions that people are asking:
*When will we reopen?
*What will it look like?
*Will things be the same?
*What technology (for safety) will be available?
The question of “when” will be addressed by the states, but a good guess is that by the middle of May, we will see movement towards a tiered re-start which will be contingent on proper testing and contact tracing protocols. The critical issue of reopening – is the ability to protect everyone who enters (or works) in the retail environment.
**The question of “what” retail will look like – will also be answered by the states in conjunction with individual retailers who will manage their own safety protocols. Several states have now mandated that face masks will be worn in public (in the absence of social distancing). Smaller retailers may require face masks, gloves and staggered spacing before entry. Some may even provide the face masks and gloves for their customers. In addition, malls and the larger stores may require temperature checks upon entry, which could also be helpful.
**The “will things be the same” question has a short answer – NO! Everything will not be the same (at least in the short term). Safety will sit in front of sales until we receive an all-clear that there is a vaccine or method of treatment for covid-19. There is too much risk in post mitigation to be careless, and we will all will continue to fear resurgence. The future operation of retail will follow the mantra “safe before sale.”
**Technology (likely advanced by Apple or Google) will help with our safety. Several apps will be available to help us. Hard to say whether the technology will use Bluetooth or GPS, but contact tracing will be in play. In China they are using a phone app that lets you know if you are near someone that poses a danger. While this is clearly an invasion of privacy, it just may be a tool that saves your life. There are apps for tracing, for tracking, and there are apps that give you a warning light for risk of exposure to another person. Red color may mean that you need to quarantine for 14 days, Yellow for 7 days, and green would be all clear. It is likely that when more testing is available for all of us, it may even be a requirement that your test and your app are linked.
As we wander through our current crisis, we all know that retail has been struggling for the last few years. The coronavirus pandemic has hastened its evolution.
*In 2017 we had more bankruptcies that we did in 2008.
*In 2018, we lost more than 100 million square feet of retail selling space.
*In 2019 we had more announced store closures in the first 4 months, than we did in all of 2018.
*In 2020 we are projecting more than double the number of store closures than we had in 2019.
On top of all that, if the liquidity crunch gets too great, or the time span takes too long, retail may have more bankruptcies in 2020 than we can possibly imagine. Some of the biggest brand and retail names will never be seen or heard from again. On a brighter note, some of these great names will survive and be healthier because they have gone through the bankruptcy process.
Rest assured, this is just honest commentary and not meant to be doom and gloom. All this change is just an abrupt advancement of serious issues that have confronted us for years. Ultimately, we will emerge from coronavirus stronger – with a better handle on how to deal with the millennial consumer and the marriage of e-commerce with brick and mortar. Likely, we will quickly learn the dance of protective shopping coupled with social distancing.
Looking forward, it is entirely possible that:
*All store personnel will wear masks and gloves
*All store personnel will have a temperature check before work
*Entrance to stores will be limited and a security guard will check your temperature as you enter.
*A flat-screen TV will appear above the entrance door to measure store density. It may look like the screens that currently appear in parking garages showing how many spaces are available. If the store is too crowded, you will have to wait outside.
While these changes may appear weird, they will help us get back to work and the end-result is safety for everyone.
One can easily imagine what this looks like in the real world we live in. Think about putting on your face mask and heading to an upscale Manhattan store to return an expensive sweater that you bought (on-sale) in February.
You walk to the store and find the salesperson who had graciously helped with the purchase several weeks ago. The return is abruptly rejected (in curt NY style). The salesman says that the sweater was purchased too long ago, the weather was now warm, nobody wants a heavy sweater in the summer, the design is dated, and there was no way he is going to refund the purchase.
You remind him that his store was closed for coronavirus, and no earlier return was possible. He barks back that we need to be more respectful of the store’s situation. The confrontation turns ugly and the discussion becomes heated.
Finally, you pick up your dated sweater and huff towards the exit.
The security guard sees you leaving and asks the salesman a new-age question; “Who was that face-masked man anyway?” Weird
I was Chairman of the Board of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) and also served as their President and CEO. The Association represents more than 1,000 well-known brand names – with a primary mission to interface with the government on matters related to our industry. I was also President of several branded and private label fashion companies that allowed for the unique and incredible opportunity to be deeply involved with most aspects of the apparel, footwear, accessory, and retail communities on both a domestic and international level. I participate annually in the Consortium for Operational Excellence in Retailing at Wharton and Harvard and guest lecture at Wharton, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell – as well as provide industry commentary on CNBC, CNN, Yahoo Finance, Bloomberg, BBC.