You can buy pretty much anything you want online. But for all of its convenience, internet shopping is no match for the personal experiences and service you’ll find at stores around California.
That’s especially true now that more and more California retailers are reopening following the extended shutdown to limit the spread of COVID-19. From the stylish clothing boutiques along Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice and in Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza to such wine country destinations as Temecula in Riverside County and Healdsburg in Sonoma County, shops are again welcoming customers—while also taking an assortment of essential precautions.
Among these, says Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, are social distancing, hand sanitation stations, and rearranging floor plans to better separate customers, whose numbers are also often limited.
“We’ve learned what works and doesn’t work to keep consumers safe,” Michelin says. “A lot of the guidelines coming out of the governor’s office pertaining to all industries actually came from suggestions and experiences that we had in retail. When it comes to understanding how to safely protect consumers, retail has led since the beginning of the pandemic. We take it very seriously. Because we know that we’ll only be successful if consumers feel comfortable coming into our stores.”
One important thing to keep in mind, Michelin notes, is that the shopping situation can vary from county to county. When it comes to the pandemic, one size does not fit all in California. A good practice, especially if you’re traveling a significant distance and shopping is a priority, is to check for regional COVID-19 updates that detail local regulations.
Know the Guidelines
To inspire consumer confidence, retailers both large and small have employed a variety of measures to help ensure their customers’ health and safety. Directed by a 21-page set of guidelines developed in conjunction with a leading infection prevention expert at the University of Southern California, such popular retail centers as The Grove near Beverly Hills and The Americana at Brand in Glendale just east of Los Angeles have installed contactless hand sanitizer stations throughout the properties, and require the wearing of masks (single-use masks are available to anyone who needs them). Staffers will help to maintain appropriate physical distancing requirements, including such measures as limiting elevator access to one household at a time. And an extensive hygiene program will cleanse escalators and seating areas on an hourly basis.
Smaller, independent operations have developed their own strategies to meet safety guidelines. With the closure of gyms and fitness facilities during the pandemic, many people have been desperate to get their exercise outdoors. Jim Gothers, co-owner with his wife Lisa Taggart of the running-shoe store Fleet Feet of Menlo Park in Silicon Valley north of San Jose, has always prided himself on the store’s personal service, the precision of its fittings, and a high level of community engagement.
“It’s such a hands-on, interactive business,” he says. “We want people to stay fit and stay healthy. For so many people, mental health is closely tied to physical health. How do we keep them out and about?”
So Gothers and Taggart collaborated with their staff and came up with a plan. They established sales teams that work separately so that if someone gets sick, it doesn’t mean the whole store has to shut down because the entire staff has been exposed. They rearranged the store to create better separation between the six fitting stations, while also maintaining outdoor fitting areas for customers who didn’t want to come inside. A touchless checkout system eliminated the need for direct contact, and any pair of shoes that a customer tries on but doesn’t buy is disinfected and set aside for a time before reshelving.
Customer Service Innovations
Up in San Luis Obispo, Scott Smith, owner of Central Coast Surfboards, which opened in 1975 and is the area’s oldest continuously operating board shop, also saw a big increase in the demand for outdoor recreation. To keep his customers engaged, early on in the crisis Smith stayed in touch through Instagram and would drive 30 minutes just to deliver $5 worth of board wax. With the store finally open for walk-in traffic, Smith developed a system in which a staffer serves as a guide for customers as they browse through the shop, thus adding a more direct level of service while also making it easier to keep people separated. And rather than wear masks, the shop’s staff dons plastic face shields to better maintain a friendly, welcoming environment.
“We’re doing our best to keep business flowing and keep everybody safe,” says Smith. “I had a meeting with the staff. A lot of them are young, in their 20s, and I told them that it was very important both for their families at home and our family here, the crew, that everybody be extra careful. Not only when you’re at work but when you’re out and about. To better protect the employees here and your family at home.”
While California businesses are doing all they can to keep shopping safe and fun, consumers also have their own set of responsibilities.
“At the top of the list is to be respectful,” says Michelin. “Stores are following the guidelines put out by the state and local health departments. They’re just following the rules to stay open. So if you don’t want to wear a face covering, don’t go in. And be patient. Sales associates are learning all of these new practices and there are so many more things they have to think about.
“It might take a little bit longer to wait in line to pay because a store changed the system to encourage contactless transactions. But if we want to continue to move down the path of stores being able to open and stay open, then we all have to do our part.”