Retailers Bank On Pent-up Customer Demand As Phase 2 Begins

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Business , COVID-19

Shoppers stroll downtown Chatham Monday. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO


Day by day, more retailers are opening their doors to customers as they adjust their operations to meet new COVID-19 safety requirements. As of Monday, retailers who comply with those rules were allowed to welcome customers indoors as part of the second phase of the state’s economic reopening plan. And they’re banking on pent-up demand from customers who’ve missed the experience of in-person shopping.

“People are definitely excited to be out and about,” said April Cabral, owner of Sundance Clothing in Chatham. She’s glad to be ending her own quarantine and to get back in the shop. “I hadn’t left the house in two and a half months. Now that I’m out and about, I’m pretty excited,” she said. On Monday, Cabral was at the store preparing for a planned opening on Wednesday, when a couple peeked inside and asked to come in and browse. She invited them in, and they were clearly glad to be enjoying the experience, she said.

In addition to cleaning, disinfecting and employee hygiene requirements, retailers are required to limit the number of customers in their stores to no more than 40 percent of their permitted occupancy or eight people per 1,000 square feet of space. The rules will be particularly challenging for very small retailers.

Right now, the occupancy rules aren’t a problem, said Joyce Morahan of Hunter’s Ladies’ Boutique in Harwich Port. “There’s not too much going on around here,” Morahan said Monday. The few people who have come in to browse have been happy to do so, and most of them seem to be wearing masks as required. For now, the main job is to stock the store with some newly arrived merchandise and to wait for the customers. She expects things to remain fairly quiet, “I think, until hotels open up and you can get some tourism down here.”

There’s not only the question of how many customers are allowed in the building, but how many will feel comfortable shopping indoors, said Caitlin Doggart-Bernal of Where the Sidewalk Ends Bookstore in Chatham.

“We still offer ‘porch pick-up’ for those who prefer contact-less shopping, the appointment system (booking online, for free, to reserve a time) gives a little more guarantee of space for anyone who might feel nervous but who also misses the feeling of shopping in a real bookstore,” she said. Inside the store, fixtures have been moved to allow for easier social distancing, the staircases have been made one-way, and there are acrylic shields up at the cash registers. Hand sanitizer is available at the door.

“For now, appointment shopping is a way to guarantee the bookstore is not crowded, and as the summer progresses, we plan to offer more of the displays outside on our covered deck, and can even run sales out there as well, for those who might prefer fresh-air browsing,” Doggart-Bernal said.

Clothing store Ragg Time, Ltd., of Orleans and Wellfleet is open for business, and limits the number of customers in the stores at a given time, owner Jeanie Bessette said.

“Dressing rooms are closed, per Gov. Baker,” she said. “Ladies can purchase and bring goods back within 24 hours for [credit card] credit.” Monday morning was a busy one in Orleans, she said.

“The ladies who shopped were thrilled we were finally open,” she said. Key is making sure her customers feel safe when visiting.

“We have hand sanitizers and gloves and sanitize the stores to keep them clean and healthy,” Bessette said. “We ask that everyone wear a mask.”

While retailers deemed essential businesses, like hardware stores, have been allowed to operate throughout the pandemic, other retailers were only allowed to open May 18, and then, only to provide curbside pickup of orders fulfilled remotely. Many communities are considering ways to relax local zoning rules and other regulations to allow retailers to display their wares outdoors. In Chatham, a working group has been established to study the feasibility of restricting parking or traffic flow to create a more pedestrian-friendly shopping area downtown.

Speaking Tuesday, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito urged business owners to consult to learn the safety requirements for their specific type of business.

“The start of Phase 2 is encouraging, though COVID-19 is still here,” she said. “We’ve asked a lot of the businesses to adapt to these new standards, and we’re also going to ask a lot of you as a customer.” When visiting stores, customers need to wear face coverings, maintain social distancing and wash their hands frequently, but they should also carefully weigh their shopping options.

“As we restart our economy, it’s important that we continue to think about the places and the...businesses and the people in your community that you’re so connected to,” she said. When purchasing goods or eating out, or even choosing short get-away trips, it’s key to focus on “buying locally, visiting locally,” Polito said. “You’re doing your part to help our businesses get up and running and get back on their feet,” she said.

Locally, where retailers rely on the summer season to make enough revenue for the rest of the year, getting customers back in the stores again is a top priority.

“I hope we can salvage [the season]” Morahan said. “Retail’s bad enough. Restaurants have got a big challenge.” The next few weeks will be critical ones, she said.

Doggart-Bernal credited the chamber of commerce and the Chatham Merchants’ Association for keeping businesses informed of the changes and arranging for the distribution of hand sanitizer donated by a distillery in Plymouth. Her outlook for the summer?

“I hope we are able to salvage some of it,” she said. “We will get by, but the fear, like so many businesses in tourism areas, is that we will not have the summer revenue to sustain us through the rest of the year.”

Cabral said she’s upbeat about the reopening of the economy, as long as it’s managed correctly. Activity will pick up, she predicted.

“I think it’s going to be busier than people think it is,” she said. Cabral also asked customers to be patient when visiting their favorite shops. With all the new rules, “none of us know what we’re doing,” she quipped.