Even as retailers are likely to start reopening stores again in the coming weeks depending on state recommendations, there is a sense among apparel merchants that the road back to recovery will be a long one that stretches deep into 2021.
In fact, as many as 27 percent of apparel retailers don’t foresee sales recovering to pre-COVID levels until the second quarter of 2021 at the earliest, with another 20 percent indicating they will have to wait even longer to reach these levels, according to a CommerceNext survey.
Just 24 percent believe sales can reach pre-pandemic levels by the fourth-quarter holiday season, the survey said.
During a recent CommerceNext webinar, Kent Zimmerman, vice president of e-commerce and consumer technology at Shoe Carnival, shared insights into how the footwear retailer is letting its shoppers know it already has reopened nearly 50 percent of its 390 stores across the Midwest and South.
With less than one in five members (17.2 percent) of digital teams across retailers saying they are “very prepared” to support store reopenings, and more than half (51.7 percent) feel they are “somewhat prepared,” Zimmerman noted that the job of his digital team has been to let customers know what Shoe Carnival is doing to keep the stores safe, and what they can expect when they venture into brick and mortar.
“We’ve elected to stick to email communications now,” Zimmerman said during the webinar. “It’s super early in this process and everything is so fluid. The level of detail we’re providing is centered on letting our customers know at a corporate level what we’re doing to keep them safe, and what we’re doing to keep our associates safe. As part of my responsibilities around customer service, those are the primary concerns that we’re hearing from the customers right now. I think we felt like this was more of a content problem to solve as it relates to our messaging than anything else.”
What’s more, Liesel Walsh, vice president of CRM at Party City, said the retailer already had curbside pickup and same-day delivery available for three weeks across 400+ locations prior to the start of its reopenings, and has personalized its home page banners based on geolocation data. With 60 Party City stores already reopened, the retailer is leveraging its store locator feature to communicate which locations are open and what services are available at each store.
“The hours of our store locator are very current and fluctuate a lot in this period of time,” Walsh said. “Sometimes we’re open Sundays, sometimes we’re not. So we’ve just been using that as the center point of information to make sure the customer has the best information possible.”
Walsh noted that employees keep contact in a Microsoft Teams thread specifically dedicated to sharing information about the stores, their operating hours and their available services, so that the site can be updated as soon as possible.
The differing approaches in communication from both Shoe Carnival and Party City show that there hasn’t been a one-size-fits-all process to reopening the stores, further reflecting the findings of a recent McKinsey COVID-19 retail recovery study of 98 retail executives, which indicated that 75 percent of retailers have not yet developed specific criteria for store reopenings. This number jumps to 92 percent of apparel retailers and 100 percent of department store and office price retail respondents surveyed.
As far as store opening protocols go, retailers are prioritizing four measures in preparation for returning shoppers, according to CommerceNext. Eighty-six percent of retailers will be providing employees with masks and other PPE, while 82 percent will place hand sanitizer throughout the store and 80 percent are cleaning stores in new ways. Additionally, 78 percent say they will limit the number of people who can enter the store at once.
“In addition to the all the policies that the retailers are putting in place, some of these are to keep up with government rules, which aren’t always clear,” said Scott Silverman, co-founder of CommerceNext. “They can change very quickly, and vary between state, county and city.”
Zimmerman said Shoe Carnival works with both state and local governments to better understand their plans going forward, noting that the retailer can’t develop its own plan until knowing what guidelines it will operate under guidelines for each market that they’re in. Then, from there, the role of the digital and operations teams is based around communicating clearly to consumers about how processes vary from store to store.
“It’s now about how we can prepare customer service to be able to handle inquiries that we think are going to be most common from our customers,” Zimmerman said. “What can we do on our digital properties to help support some behavior that we all know will change over time in terms of how the customer shops our store? We know that things are going to change for our stores, and we know the shopping behavior will change, but it’s really up to us, the digital leaders, to support the field as much as possible.”
Once stores reopen, retailers believe most new e-commerce shoppers will remain invested in that channel. Thirty-nine percent of retailers believe that within 40 percent and 60 percent of new online shoppers will continue to shop through their sites, while 19 percent of retail respondents expect between 60 and 80 percent of shoppers will continue to buy online.
In the two-week stretch of April 12 to April 26, 70 percent of retailers said their e-commerce revenues were ahead of plans, well ahead of the 58 percent that said so in a previous CommerceNext survey, which collected results from March 29 to April 11. Apparel retailers aren’t entirely as bullish, with just 32 percent reporting they are significantly ahead of revenue plans compared to 45 percent of everyone else, but their numbers compared to March indicate that the sector is in a better position overall.