By Reginald Tucker With many parts of the United States reopening—thanks in large measure to the combination of increased vaccinations and declining COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths—many business sectors are beginning to invite customers back into their brick-and-mortar stores again. Across the country, we’re starting to see the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions regarding crowd sizes at restaurants, bars, sporting venues and entertainment establishments, for example. Also easing are mandates regarding masks in certain venues—providing patrons can prove they are fully vaccinated or have tested negative for the coronavirus.
But as a largely sequestered society yearns for a greater sense of normalcy, not everyone has reached the same comfort level when it comes to ditching the masks in public spaces or mingling among people whose vaccination status cannot be readily ascertained. That’s why, retail experts say, some of the COVID-19-era restrictions put in place at the height of the pandemic are likely to endure in some shape or form for the foreseeable future even as we begin to turn the corner on the pandemic.
At Texas-based New Braunfels Flooring, Michelle Winters, owner, said customers are very passionate about COVID-19 restrictions on both sides of the mask issue. That’s why—for the foreseeable future—she’s going to play it safe. “We are sticking with ‘By Appointment Only’ so customers can feel comfortable whether they prefer to wear a mask or not,” she told FCNews.
Ditto for the observance of cleaning and disinfecting practices that were put in place early on to mitigate the spread of the virus. “Our store has been meticulously cleaned way before clean was made cool by COVID-19,” she added. “Daily opening and closing procedures cover most of the main cleaning, and common touch points are continually sanitized throughout the day. It helps keep the store dazzling, which helps us stand out.”
Interestingly, when it comes to her installers showing up at the homeowner’s residence, most of her customers don’t seem to be too concerned. “Our customers have not once asked that an installer wear a mask,” Winters said. “By that stage of the sale we know the customers’ personal preferences and have had the opportunity to ask them whether they want installers to be wearing a mask—everyone has declined.”
At Heritage Floor Sanding, a Commack, N.Y.-based hardwood flooring contractor, masks are essentially part of the uniform—even after all this time. As certain essential segments of the economy began to open in New York nearly one year ago, the company observed a range of responses when its installers walked into a customer’s home. “There are some cases where we’re doing work in someone’s home and they’ll be all the way at the other end of the house; in other situations, they’re not wearing masks at all, so you don’t know what to expect,” said Howie Rose, co- owner, at the time.
Fast forward to today, and many of the same precautions are still in effect. “We are still practicing safety measures as far as wearing masks in people’s homes and respecting the social distancing,” Rose told FCNews. “A year and a half later, business is booming like never before. Customers seem to be feeling extremely confident to go ahead with renovations in the home.”
For dealers like Phil Koufidakis, president of Baker Bros., which services the Phoenix market, it’s business as usual a year and a half after the outbreak in the U.S. “I don’t see a ‘new normal,’” he said. “For the most part, we are back to the ‘old normal’ here in Phoenix. General cleanliness has always been high on our list, so we did not have to make much of an additional effort. There is an occasional customer who may request a mask, but otherwise the state is largely open—and so are we.”
During the thick of the outbreak, many specialty flooring retailers were either compelled to close or operate on an appointment-only basis by order of state government mandates. In order to survive and maintain contact with both existing and potential customers alike, many instituted various measures and programs to leverage their digital capabilities.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many flooring retailers expect to continue utilizing their new- found digital capabilities moving forward. “At the height of the pandemic, we kept our digital presence active, and we had a great year,” said Deby Winter, owner of Carpet & Tile Warehouse, Vero Beach, Fla. “We were able to communicate with our customers regarding new services we offer, such as curbside pickup and phone orders.”
Steady as she goes
Regardless of the specific approach or mindset embraced by individual retailers, experts say it’s important for retailers to exercise sensitivity on these issues—especially since the U.S. market is just beginning to emerge from the pandemic. “In-store, things are going to be a bit awkward for a while,” said Marina Tassi, senior product manager at Heady, a global marketing research firm. “Some folks will want to wear masks and keep their distance; others will yearn to return to their pre-COVID-19 shopping habits.”
The key to successfully transitioning, wrote Tassi in her study, “Post-Pandemic Retail: Here’s What Shopping Will Look Like After COVID-19,” is to practice patience and demonstrate understanding and compassion. “Don’t make consumers feel weird, and don’t take this opportunity to make a political statement,” she stressed. “Keep some masks on hand and train your staff on how to deal with common situations that may arise.”
While most people would like nothing more than a return to the way things were pre- COVID-19, the reality is the world as we know it has changed—that includes the world of retailing. To some extent, retailers will find it necessary to reimagine the in-store retail experience if they are going to maximize their opportunities for success. That’s going to be especially critical in the world of floor covering, which depends largely on the tactile, in-person experience.
“If you decide to maintain a physical presence, it’s more important than ever to clearly establish why a customer should go in store,” Tassi wrote. “We know the modern, post-COVID-19 consumer has a new set of preferences and expectations when it comes to retail, and that business owners will need to adapt to stay relevant and thrive.”