As retailers it’s our responsibility to ensure our operations do not further spread the virus. In this a strange and challenging time, it’s crucial that a second wave resurgence of the virus does not occur. If it does, it will set our industry back much further and make recovery all the more challenging.

The following list are key things to consider as you envision re-opening retail shops to customers again. We include examples of some of these implemented. We also have a detailed case study featuring a 3200-square-foot retail store.

As you review this list, recognize you’ll likely not implement everything on day one. Many brands will choose different paths to reopening.

  • Some will do the bare minimum and wait to see if there are problems. This is attractive from a business operations perspective – quick to open. There is inherent risk with this approach from the perceptions of customers and employees. Consider potential long-term risks and damage to your brand image and messaging.
  • Find a middle ground that goes beyond minimum showing that you care about customer and employee health and safety. You’ll see easy to implement concepts below with high visual and process impacts. The idea is to minimize cash outlays on a temporary situation. Small businesses that get this right will be able leverage their good work for media coverage and customer good will.
  • Big investments to gain competitive advantage in anticipation of permanent business model changes. This approach will likely be left to strong brands that have been looking to change their retail approach before this crisis. They will be looking for ways to train their customers to more eCommerce and on-line support processes.

The Principles

As of this writing there are little to no government guidelines or requirements for non-essential retail. You should regularly check current CDC, OSHA, and state/local guidelines for COVID-19 for your type of business.

We do believe that social distancing, cleaning and hygiene requirements from essential retail will continue for many businesses opening up soon. The principles below encapsulate this and other good practices.

Design Layout and Customer Flow Enable Social Distancing in a Natural and Comfortable Way

  • Keep people six feet apart with visual cues and fixtures
  • Understand new maximum occupancy requirements. Some states are recommending % of prior fire code maximum occupancy, others are requiring #/1000 square feet. You will need a process of counting and controlling when maximum is reached.
  • One-way flow of customer traffic to avoid passing by each other
    • Employees need to obey same flow
  • Defined shopping areas that let customers browse and then move to the next area
  • Clear and obvious signage
    • Take time and get messaging and visuals right
    • Floor stickers and graphics point the way and give clear boundaries.
    • See our Rosie’s Workshop case study for real examples
  • We have been looking for any government guidance on how to handle couples, families or groups in a public space. Once non-essential retail is allowed to open, people will want to shop together.
    • We haven’t seen anything as of this writing, other than for essential retail where only one person from the household should go in the store to minimize crowds and contact.
    • You will need to think about how to treat and communicate with the obvious couple or group who are going to shop together and be closer than six feet. They legitimately feel this is okay because they live together and drove to the store together.
    • We will continue to keep an eye on this and share real experiences when things open up.

Rethink Purchase Processes

  • Low touch shopping – choosing what to buy through other senses
    • The days of the customer hunting and picking for treasurers are suspended for now. We have not seen any specific government guidance on this as of the date of this writing. CDC guidelines for cleaning and disaffecting clothing and carpets contacted with COVID-19 in public facilities are onerous. This is not the same thing, but apparel brands and retailers could be especially challenged.
    • Thinking about this now and having ideas and basic plans could help speed up your opening process.
  • When a customer decides to buy – minimize multiple person contact
    • Goods only handled only by the customer
    • Goods not touched by human at all. Compartments have mechanism to drop into bag/box.
    • Prepacked in the back and retrieved at time of purchase
    • Shipped from warehouse after contactless purchase in store
  • How does the customer do it safely? Here are some ideas.
    • Some stores lend themselves to point and pick. Customer looks at wall of goods and then points out to an employee what they want. The good(s) are pulled and taken to the cash pack area.
    • Customers use their phone camera to take a picture of what they want, then an employee retrieves item from back. This helps with perception of not getting something that has been “pawed over”.
    • Physical cards dispensed near the display are then taken to cash wrap area.
    • Goods be dispensed at display in a way that ensures it’s not touched by others. Example: Round candles are in vertically dispensing racking system like grocery store cans. Electronics displayed behind plexiglass with numbers, bar codes or buy tags.
    • Pick and self-pack options may work for some retailers. This will have to be well thought out to avoid the multiple customers handling problem.
    • Buy on-line, pick up instore (BOPIS) is promoted to customers before and during the in-person experience. This is an excellent time to make gains in on-line customers.
  • Rethinking payment options
    • Encourage customers to use touchless payment options including Apple Pay, Google Pay
    • Minimize handling debit/ credit cards, reward cards
      • Have customer swipe/ insert card; turn off signature requirement
    • Discourage or don’t accept cash transactions
    • If you need to accept cash transactions, below is example protocol to consider:
      • Do not touch your face afterward
      • Ask customers to place cash on the counter rather than directly into your hand
      • Place money directly on the counter when providing change back to customers.
      • Wipe counter between each customer at checkout.
      • Sanitize or wash hands after handling cash

Some businesses will have no option but to fallback to near business as usual – customer picks and employees pack. Even with this option, you’ll likely need to setup a plexiglass barrier at the cash pack. We recommend plexiglass partitions with a pass-through opening at the bottom to facilitate the transaction. This will require frequent employee handwashing and sanitizers. It can work. But all of us already dreads the grocery shopping experience. Will your customers take the perceived risks to buy from you?

Hygiene and Cleaning are Manageable and Natural

This will be a challenge to keep supplies on hand, meet frequency and depth of cleaning. At the time of this writing CDC and other government agencies have not published guidelines for non-essential retail. It’s worth reading the CDC’s guidelines for essential food retail.

The following are some ideas we’ve gotten from retailers currently operating or planning their reopening:

  • Provide customers and the public with hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol, tissues, and no-touch trash receptacles
  • Have hand washing readily available to employees. This should include clean running water, ample soap supply, and paper towels to dry hands.
  • Below is example language for signage at sinks to remind employees of proper hand washing technique:
    1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold). Turn off the tap and apply soap.
    2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
    3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. “Need a timer?” “Hum the ‘Happy Birthday’ song from beginning to end twice.”
    4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
    5. Thoroughly dry your hands.
  • Hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol readily available for employees. Instruct employees to use hand sanitizer immediately after washing hands to help control employees who don’t properly wash their hands.
  • Displays minimize touching
    • Rework displays to inspire looking and not touching – garments hanging with clear “how to buy-me” tags instead of a table of folded garments to pick through
    • Behind easy to clean surfaces such as plexiglass or beyond reach
    • Displays spaced apart to avoid crowding and chokepoints
  • Surfaces exposed to touching to be easily cleaned and sanitized on regular basis
    • Hard surfaces, minimized clutter
    • Cleaning solution and process is effective to type of surface – not all cleaners can kill viruses on all surfaces. Follow recommended CDC cleaners list.
      1. Remove any visible dirt and grime before using disinfectants
      2. Use a disinfectant to kill the virus from the surface.
      3. Have employees wear gloves and a mask while cleaning.
      4. Throw away gloves after each cleaning.
  • Don’t forget frequently touched surfaces like cash registers, doorknobs, light switches, counter tops, drawer pulls, sinks, faucet and toilet handles, phones, keys and remote controls, printers, keyboards and computer mice
  • Fabrics and other soft goods should be shielded from public coughing and sneezing.
    • While it’s not likely this will be required by the government, we can see problems with exposed inventory if contact tracing shows positive COVID-19 person visited your store. Example: The need to dry clean or wash garments.
      • For clothing, towels, linens and other items that can be laundered, wash at the warmest possible setting with your usual detergent and then dry completely. Do not “hug” or shake dirty laundry before washing to avoid spreading the virus.
      • For soft items, such as rugs, drapes or upholstered sofas, follow the manufacturer’s instructions or a cleaning product specifically for that item. For example, use a steam cleaner or apply a disinfectant product that is suitable for fabrics.
  • All hard surfaces and plexiglass/glass shielding should be cleaned with appropriate cleaner on a regular schedule dependent on volume of customers through.
    • Example: twice during shift on weekdays and hourly on Saturday and Sunday.
    • Clear procedure developed and trained for cleaning and sanitizing the entire store.
    • Closing or opening procedure includes extensive deep cleaning and sanitizing.
  • Maintenance should make sure building ventilation systems are working properly and maintained per standard protocols for optimal indoor air quality.
    • If feasible, make sure high-efficiency air filters are working, increase ventilation in common areas and the amount of outdoor air entering the building.
  • Employee training include visual actions seen by customers clearly demonstrating the store is being vigorously cleaned and public and employee safety is first priority.
  • Employees are provided all personal protective equipment needed. It is a mistake to make this as an employee responsibility. They will likely not find effective or compliant gear. They may choose not to wear because of cost.
    • Be creative. It is likely that supply chain problems will impact your company’s ability to buy standard PPE and cleaning supplies.
    • Workers should always wash hands after removing any PPE
  • Remind employees
    • All coughs and sneezes even while wearing a mask should be covered with arm or tissue that is immediately thrown in trash. Wash or sanitize hands immediately after.
    • Do not shake hands. Instead, wave.
    • If they are sick, to stay home. Don’t require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.

What You Can Use to Disinfect a Surface and Kill the Virus

As of this writing, this is the recommended list per the CDC and OSHA. We recommend you check with the CDC an OSHA for updates to recommended cleaning procedures.

  • To disinfect a cleaned surface or object, you can use regular disinfection products (for example, bleach, peroxide or alcohol-based disinfectant products).
  • If commercial disinfects are sold out, you can make a diluted household bleach or alcohol solution, if appropriate for the surface.
    • Bleach solution: Add 4 teaspoons of bleach to 1 quart or 1 liter of water. Prepare a new solution daily or as needed. Never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser – you can create deadly, hazardous gases.
    • You can also disinfect using solutions with at least 70% alcohol

Visuals Encourage Safe Actions and Self-Guided Experiences for Customers

  • Signage at entry sets an empathetic positive tone (be safe, we’re all in this together) while clearly defining expectations of behavior
  • Customers should have a positive experience by
    • Learning the stories behind products – great visual and text in each area and product grouping
    • Engaging safely with products, less touching, more 360-degree visuals
    • Being confident of hygiene and safety
    • Not hurried through
    • Feel comfortable in each of the staged areas or sections
    • Clearly know where they are going next and what options they have
    • Having visual cues such as floor decals, colored tape, or signs to indicate where they should stand during check out

Employee Operations are Safe and Simple

  • Study latest CDC, state and local guidelines appropriate to your type of business and store
  • Review operations manual and current operations procedures (formal or informal)
    • See where changes need to be made to better comply with health and safety
    • Shift primary stocking activities to off-peak or after hours when possible to reduce contact with customers
    • Look for ways to simplify and streamline processes to minimize contact
    • If you do not have a documented operations-manual, we recommend taking this time to start one. It doesn’t have to be long and complicated. You can use parts of this document to get started.
    • Identify supplies needed to support changes
  • Formalize employee and manager training
    • Points talked through at standup meetings can work
    • One-pagers at stations to reinforce training
  • Ask employees for feedback and ideas on how to simplify processes and procedures
    • This should be an on-going conversation
  • Have a process for employees to confidentially ask questions and voice concerns
    • This is not a time you want them feeling boxed in and using outside channels to be heard
  • Staffing
    • Consider staggered shifts to increase the physical distance among employees
    • Assign staff to zones in order to maintain social distancing from each other even while wearing PPE
    • Have one manager be the COVID-19 point of contact for both employees and public.

Be Inventive

  • Private shopping appointments. Smaller retailers shorten open hours and offer appointments before or after for patrons wanting to shop alone or with close family.
    • Example: Tiki Botanicals in Columbus, Ohio offers the appointments with a prepaid gift card that includes a 20% discount. Buy $100 card for $80 and get 30 minutes private shopping time.
  • Cash mob and masks. Businesses work together or through the local chamber to offer discounts. A volunteer sews up masks. A free mask is given to each member of the cash mob.

If you’ve seen or implemented an inventive approach please share them and we’ll include them in an upcoming paper or article.

Minimize Investments

  • For most smaller retailers and brands, now is not the time to spend money
  • Most of the ideas shared above can be implemented with minimal cash outlay
    • Existing labor can make changes to fixtures, displays and install plexiglass
    • Printing can be effective and procured cheaply from on-line resources
    • Most of the printing and changes may only need to last three to six months
  • On-line purchases and ordering can be inexpensively setup using software as a service platforms
    • Many of these are tied to your existing POS
    • Supporting processes of fulfilment and delivery can be managed manually in the short-term. This is often a good practice for implementing any new service or process. Prove and simplify before investing in expensive IT solutions.

These are early days in this new world of retail. Our community would appreciate you sharing how you are changing the retail experience and methods to meet these challenges and opportunities. Please send an email to the author.


Jen Koss has 20-years-experience management consulting in retail, hospitality, manufacturing and IT. She is co-founder of Rosie’s Workshop, a vertically integrated brand of home décor.