Will Social Distance Shopping Be the New Norm Post-Coronavirus?

Safe shopping. It could be the new retail buzz term as some states prepare to reopen businesses once the coronavirus outbreak is under control.

But for many comfort and running shoe stores that offer customers a one-on-one fitting experience, it may not be business as usual if social distancing guidelines remain in place. And even if rules relax, retailers predict shoppers may be reluctant to return to their pre-pandemic buying routines.

At Naperville Running Co. in Naperville, Ill., owner Kris Hartner is already considering ways to continue to deliver quality service while adhering to safety measures. In fact, Hartner envisions operating his store much like a restaurant.

“[You’ll] have reservations and a greeter,” he said. “Somebody walks up for an appointment. Oh, you don’t have a reservation? OK, our next open meeting is in 90 minutes.”

Distancing customers, however, is just one concern for the retailer, who is now tackling the issue of handling product that’s been tried on by customers. “I don’t know exactly how we’re going to go about doing that,” he noted. “We can’t just quarantine every pair of shoes that gets tried on. At this point, if we get returns, we’ll quarantine them for five days. That’s kind of the plan.”

Lester Wasserman, president of Tip Top Shoes in New York, one of the hotbed areas for the virus, questions whether customers will feel comfortable coming back into stores even after bans are lifted. “Will our customers want the same level of intimate service that they have come to know, love and expect from Tip Top Shoes and Tip Top Kids?” he asked. And, if the city continues its six-foot social distancing order, he will need to reconfigure the customer seating area.

Like Wasserman, Dan Ungar, owner of Mar-Lou Shoes in Cleveland, said one of his greatest fears is the reluctance of shoppers to enter a crowded store. “No matter what restrictions are made by government, [they are] not going to dictate social norms or what consumer behavior will be like,” he said. “None of us have crystal balls.”

In order to resume business safely, retailers will have to keep up with the ever-changing guidelines from local governments and health care professionals.

Dr. Kim Peters, who specializes in internal medicine, said there are some easy-to-follow protective and preventative measures stores can use. For instance, when customers are sitting only a few feet away from sales associates at the fitting stools, Peters recommends face masks to help prevent the wearer from spreading droplets of infected virus. However, she warns, masks don’t always protect the wearer from getting sick.

To further protect workers, Peters suggests employees wear latex gloves when handling shoes. And while setting aside footwear for three days after being tried on by a customer would effectively cause the virus to die on its own, this may not be a practical solution, she notes.

However, what is essential is keeping store environments clean. Peters advises disinfecting surfaces daily, including computers, displays and doorknobs. And installing plexiglass barriers at checkout stations will also help prevent transmission

As retailers come up with their own plans for opening their doors to the public, Dave Bailey, owner of Danform Shoes in Colchester, Vt., is grateful to be operating a business in a small community. “I don’t think we will be as affected as someone with a store in a city,’ he said. “Vermonters are extremely cautious, and our [infection] rate has flattened out.” However, he is counting on the state for guidance. “I trust them to direct us to do things safely and get us from here to there.”

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