“No touch” consultations will be the rule at beauty counters. Ear piercing, bra fittings and alterations will be temporarily suspended. Fitting rooms will be limited. Employees will wear company-issued cloth masks. And trying on dress shirts? Forget about it.
Macy’s, one of the biggest department store chains in the United States, announced these steps Thursday as part of an ambitious reopening plan. The company aims to reopen all of its 775 stores, including Bloomingdale’s, Bluemercury and its major flagships in Manhattan, in the next six to eight weeks, the latest sign of how eager the nation’s largest retailers are to return to business.
It also brought into sharper focus what retail shopping could look like in the pandemic era.
The reopenings are expected to start on Monday, with 68 stores in Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Macy’s will reopen 50 more locations on May 11. The company’s stores have been closed since March 18 because of the coronavirus pandemic, causing the majority of its sales to disappear.
Macy’s expects its reopened stores to bring in only about 15 to 20 percent of their typical business at first and “slowly build” from there, the company’s chief executive, Jeff Gennette, said during a presentation. Whether shoppers would return, he acknowledged, was an open question.
“We’ll see how they respond, and based on that, we’ll be a lot smarter,” he said. “So I’m going to know a lot more by Tuesday of next week.”
Mr. Gennette sought to strike an optimistic note about the health of Macy’s business — he noted that April sales were “stronger than we expected” — but he acknowledged that the company was simply not built to sustain the complete closing of its stores for a prolonged period.
The presentation from Macy’s illustrated what the shopping experience might look like, and came days after Simon Property Group, one of the biggest U.S. mall operators, shared a similar reopening strategy with retailers. Stores will be filled with signs reminding customers to stand six feet apart, plexiglass barriers will be installed at cash registers and hand sanitizer stations will be placed by elevators and escalators. Even before the pandemic, foot traffic to stores had been down, and it remains to be seen whether shoppers will venture into these newly restricted environments while the country continues to deal with a highly contagious virus.
“Over the last several years, the way stores fought back against online was to suggest that the experience was worth the trip,” said Simeon Siegel, a managing director at BMO Capital Markets who covers retail and e-commerce. “In this new normal, for now, the experience is what puts you at risk. So it falls to the retailers to figure out how to create a socially distanced experience that makes the trip worth the inconvenience and the risk.”
Mr. Siegel said he was surprised to see Macy’s create a plan for the next six weeks, given the uncertainty around when many states will relax shutdown orders and the possibility that a flare-up of illness could force them to close again.
“It would be one thing to have internal plans — it’s another to make them public and be held accountable to them in a period of such flux,” he added.
Macy’s said it would reopen stores only in markets where state and local governments said it was safe for nonessential retailers to return to business. In a presentation posted online, it also said that stores must be “financially attractive” and have “minimum viable staffing” to reopen. Staff members will need training on new health and safety routines. Macy’s furloughed the majority of its 123,000 employees in the past month.
Some consumers may find it difficult to imagine shopping at a department store without touching, feeling and trying on everything from apparel to makeup.
Macy’s plans seemed designed to mitigate shoppers’ inevitable squeamishness. It is establishing new rules for returned clothing and clothes that have been tried on and rejected: Those garments will be kept off the sales floor for 24 hours. The company will suspend “spalike” services and at beauty counters, customers will not be able to touch tester items like lipstick tubes and mascara.
Employees who work in fragrance areas will still be able to hand out cards spritzed with perfume and cologne, but only if customers request them. Shoppers will be required to use hand sanitizer before trying on jewelry or watches. Some, but not all, employees will wear gloves.
Beauty associates will be required to use testers, a makeup counter staple, on “face charts” with single-use disposable applicators. The charts are pieces of paper that depict a face, which associates can draw on to show customers how to use items like blush and lipstick.
Macy’s said that roughly a quarter of the stores it planned to reopen on Monday were in Simon Property malls. Simon Property outlined plans this week to reopen 49 shopping centers in 10 states between Friday and Monday.
The mall operator also plans to post signs at its locations to manage traffic flow and spacing, and said that security officers and employees would “actively remind and encourage shoppers” to maintain a proper distance from others and to refrain from shopping in groups. It will also adust food court seating, shutter play areas and drinking fountains and restrict the number of sinks and urinals in restrooms. Macy’s and Simon Property did not say that customers would be required to wear masks.
Putting safety measures into practice can prove challenging. Large retailers that have remained open during the pandemic because they sell food and other items that have been deemed essential have had difficulties getting customers to follow social distancing measures, store employees say.
Walmart stores, for example, have placed arrows on its floors to direct the flow of customer traffic through the aisles and prevent people from passing too close together as they shop.
But Ruby Ann Woolwine, who works at a Walmart in Dearborn, Mich., said many customers did not follow the arrows and crowding was still an issue. “People are coming into the store like it’s nothing,” Ms. Woolwine said in an interview this week.
Macy’s is also looking for other ways to get products out of stores and into the hands of consumers. Hundreds of Macy’s locations have been fulfilling and shipping online orders during the shutdown, and Mr. Gennette said curbside pickup would be available at additional stores.
Mr. Siegel said Macy’s plans reflect the difficulties facing the company and other department stores, which have been dealt a severe blow by their temporary closings.
“What is clear is that these companies need to drive revenue to survive and therefore the goal is to figure out how to open and stay open,” he said. “Everyone will be sitting on the edge of their seat watching as these stores open across the country and trying to get a gauge of what works, how it works and how they make sure they’re moving forward in a safe and successful way.”
An official at the union representing more than 6,000 Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s workers in New York said it first learned of the company’s plans to reopen by reading about them in news media reports on Thursday.
“Some of our employees have worked for Macy’s for three or four decades, and it is their lives that will be put on the line,” said the official, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “We have asked for information on how they intend to protect their employees and they have provided us with none. I am stupefied by their behavior.”
Other retailers that sell apparel and accessories are moving cautiously.
On Thursday, Tapestry, the owner of Kate Spade New York and Coach, said that, beginning Friday, it would reopen about 40 North American stores for contact-free curbside or storefront pickup service. Best Buy said this week that it would soon start offering in-store consultations by appointment at about 200 stores, limiting the number of customers in stores at any time.
Mr. Gennette closed the presentation by noting that Macy’s was still planning to hold its annual Fourth of July fireworks display in New York City, as well as its Thanksgiving Day parade. There had been criticism of Macy’s for moving ahead with the fireworks show despite having furloughed employees. But Mr. Gennette said that it was a “misnomer” that such events lose money for the company, adding that Macy’s was working with the city on how to hold the events safely.
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