As the U.S. begins the process of reopening businesses amid the COVID-19 crisis, footwear retailers are faced with a range of challenges when it comes to protecting the safety of employees and customers.
Due to uncertainty around the survival rate of the disease on surfaces and its possible transfer to people, retailers are implementing their own safety measures, including sanitizing shoes and boxes after try-ons, and limiting the handling of shoes to employees.
At J-Ray Shoes in Mobile, Ala., a children’s and women’s store that reopened on April 30, co-owner Lele Kerchner has put a plan in place to deal with merchandise handled by shoppers.
For product in the store that’s been touched by guests, Kerchner is having staff clean these items, along with their boxes, with disinfecting wipes. For product that‘s been returned or being exchanged, the retailer is setting these items aside for several days before putting them back into circulation.
However, Kerchner said, since customers have been coming into the store with specific items in mind, fewer shoes are being tried on.
Mobley’s Shoes — a women’s and children’s store in Raleigh, N.C., that is readying to reopen on May 8 — plans to initially limit the number of shoppers, so it can reduce the number of pairs of shoes on the floor. “We’re trying to be as clean and tidy as possible,” said VP Andrew Mobley, who will be wiping down boxes, shoes and Brannock devices with disinfecting wipes after try-ons.
Although social distancing remains a key concern for retailers, Mobley said he and his staff will continue to fit shoes on customers in order to reduce the further touching of merchandise.
Similarly, William Jue — whose store William’s Fashion Shoes in Corpus Christi, Texas, will reopen on May 18 — agreed that shoe handling will not be a major concern since he plans to have sales associates continue to fit customers. “They expect to be served,” he said about the store’s customers. He added that as a precautionary measure his staff will be wearing masks and gloves.
Freddie Rodgers, owner of Tootsies Shoes, a children’s store with locations in South Carolina and North Carolina, said she’s decided to take shoes that have been tried on out of circulation for 24 hours, placing them in a designated area of the stock room.
Since that method can result in a loss of sales, retailers that carry brands with in-stock programs are finding themselves in a winning position, according to Leslie Farrington, southeast sales manager for Badorf Shoe.
Companies like Badorf, whose Footmates and Tsukihoshi brands are available in stock, will be able to replenish inventory within a day or two. “[Retailers] don’t have to be dependent on stock,” she said.
Pulling out all the stops when it comes to protecting both employees and customers is Rick Ravel, president of Karavel Shoes in Austin, Texas. The store has posted signs asking customers to refrain from touching shoes, while sales associates will be wearing face masks and gloves to eliminate personal contact with merchandise.
Ravel has also placed a sign prominently at the store’s entrance requesting customers use a hand sanitizer upon entering, then suggesting they wear a mask, available for purchase in the store. Shoppers will also have their temperature checked at entry. For added protection, Ravel has created private seating areas in the store out of VC piping and fabric in order to separate guests.
While independent retailers can better monitor store traffic than self-service shoe chains with large formats and thousands of shoes on display, no method is foolproof.
According to Gary Weiner, president and CEO of Saxon Shoes, with locations in Richmond, Va., and Fredericksburg, Va., he does not plan to quarantine or put shoes in the washing machine after they’ve been handled — or stop customers from picking up footwear on display. “Customers are spending money and [want] to touch the shoe,” said Weiner. “What if there’s a shoe in five colors and they want to look at them in the light.”
As independents like Weiner continue to embrace new business tactics, the retailer asks, ”What is Costco, Walmart, Target doing with every customer who comes into their stores and not sure if they need a [garment] in medium or large and touch them both?”