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Reopening Retail: How to Shorten the Timeline to Get Stores Back in Business

The U.S. economy is at an unprecedented juncture as business leaders, health experts and government officials argue about the right time to reopen non-essential businesses in the wake of COVID-19. And as the retail industry supports 42 million jobs, it’s critically important to reopen retail stores as quickly and safely as possible.

Up to this point, the only topic being discussed is when to reopen non-essential businesses. However, the first question we need to answer is how to reopen them. We need a comprehensive strategy, and the retail industry can’t afford to get it wrong.

Reopening non-essential retail stores in a “big bang” model is a recipe for disaster. Instead, the process of reopening retail must be methodical, organized and gradual. One way to do this is “shopping by appointment.” It’s a familiar concept, and it could be the key to helping non-essential retailers manage customer traffic once they reopen their stores.

Scheduling an appointment: a familiar concept to consumers

Consumers make appointments all the time: restaurant reservations, doctor visits and hair appointments are just a few examples. It’s a universally accepted concept. Why can’t retailers start scheduling shopping appointments via their apps and websites? This would permit a limited number of customers to enter the store on a set schedule while preventing long lines and overcrowding at the store entrance.

This would be much safer and far more efficient than what we currently see at grocers and other essential retailers, where long lines of customers wait for up to an hour or more to enter a Walmart, Costco or local grocer. The principles of social distancing have been introduced at many locations, but it’s extremely burdensome for shoppers.

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Prescheduled shopping appointments would allow non-essential retailers to apply the same principles, while providing a much better customer experience that prioritizes customer safety and ensures a secure uncrowded shopping environment.  Retailers could limit each shopper’s experience to 30 minutes or so in order to make sure the appointment schedule remains on track.

In action: how shopping by appointment could work

It is not very difficult to roll out a robust reservation solution in a short period of time.  Most retailers list their store locations on their website and within their mobile app.  A simple enhancement would add a “Make Appointment” button next to each location that allows the customer to select the day, time and number of shoppers that plan to visit that location.  The number of appointments would be limited to the safe occupancy level of each location as determined by the state or local government based on square feet of floor space or a percentage of maximum occupancy allowed under pre-COVID conditions.

Another option is to modify an existing reservation platform to allow retailers to enter their store locations, hours of operation and total customer capacity at each location. There are many such platforms for restaurant reservations and similar services. Why not make them available to all types of retailers?

The future: an increase in demand for in-person shopping

As stores begin to open again, we will likely see a surge of pent-up shopping demand, especially because fashion retailers and department stores will rely heavily on promotions and discounts to attract consumers and reduce inventory. On opening day, consumer demand could be similar to what stores typically experience on Black Friday. There’s a caveat, though: shoppers will only show up if they know they’ll be safe. There must be a mechanism in place to prevent large crowds from gathering outside the stores. “Shopping by appointment” might be a way to mitigate this risk.

There’s much to be done. We still need to determine the viability of rapid virus testing, expand aisles on the shopping floor so consumers can pass each other at an acceptable distance, wear masks in stores, perform daily deep cleans and utilize touchless checkout. A thorough, well-thought-out game plan is essential. The sooner we reopen non-essential businesses, the sooner we remove furloughed employees from the unemployment line.