Troy — Dozens of shoppers like Carrie Adkins ventured from their homes last week to walk the halls of Somerset Collection during its first days open after the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s just nice to get out, to walk around, to get out from being closed up,” said Adkins, 48, who with her 19-year-old daughter Kristin had purchased some clothing from Forever 21 on Thursday when the mall reopened with less than a third of its 170 stores welcoming customers.
Retailers report seeing a burst of initial activity. But many are uncertain over what high levels of unemployment, a recession and the lasting implications of customers turning to online shopping during the shutdown could mean for their business. And for malls already facing challenges in attracting business, COVID-19 presents another difficulty in providing shoppers comfort concerning health and safety.
“Malls have got this two-fold fight to regain relevance and bring traffic back,” said David Zietsma, head of strategy at Jackman Reinvents, a Toronto-based brand strategy firm. “Even if they solve this initial issue, there’s a much bigger challenge on the horizon.”
Stores already are responding. After filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in recent weeks, J.C. Penney is closing 154 stores, and discount retailer Tuesday Morning is shuttering 230 locations. Native Detroit brand Sanders Candy last week said it was pulling out of Livonia’s Laurel Park Place and Novi’s Twelve Oaks Mall in addition to closing two other standalone locations in Metro Detroit.
“The stores that we are closing are where foot traffic had been decreasing anyway,” said Bill Elam, Sanders president. “We’ve seen online sales jump, and we know those locations are just going to have a tough time recovering. COVID-19 really taught people who didn’t buy online to buy online. Shoppers of brick-and-mortar retail already were turning that way, and this has taken it to the next level.”
But some shoppers like Nahson Kellum, 20, of Southfield say they missed the in-person experience while stores closed.
“It’s more important with larger purchases,” said Kellum, who picked up a crossbody bag, some earbuds and a gift from Somerset. “Usually you want to be in a store to get a feel for the material, whatever it is.”
Besides Sanders, Laurel Park Place has not lost any other tenants, said Stacey Keating, the mall’s spokeswoman. A few stores in the shopping center reopened last month by appointment only, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order. She further lifted restrictions on Thursday when stores were able to open with limits on capacity.
“We have a handful of retailers that have reopened, and I anticipate additional retailers will reopen over the coming days,” Keating said. “I think what we’ve seen when we’ve reopened our properties in other markets is that people do want to come out to the mall to shop. Retailers and our management have been happy with the sales we have seen.”
While Twelve Oaks may lose a couple of small tenants during these difficult times, said Daniel Jones, the mall’s manager, the shopping center had seen the number of stores open double over the course of its first week after starting with 25 stores. Many national fashion retailers — including Macy’s, Nordstrom and H&M — remained closed, but Jones expects to see more activity from the anchors this week. Sixty reserved parking spots give businesses the opportunity to offer curbside pickup, too.
“That’s been the biggest challenge,” Jones said. “Many customers expected when we opened, all the stores would be open. Each has their own philosophy. Some retailers are opening one state at a time by those least affected. Others want to open all at once.”
Customers can find a directory of open stores on most malls’ websites. But how stores open differed, as well. Some at Twelve Oaks such as Pottery Barn and Sleep Number posted signs requesting customers still call for an appointment. Others like Foot Locker posted occupancy limits and had a short line of customers on Friday.
Twelve Oaks also licensed a queue app that would allow stores to text customers their place in line to give them more flexibility when waiting to enter a store. Said Jones: “We think it will help, especially since occupancy limits will probably be in effect for a while, even after the government lifts them.”
And some stores like women’s retailer J.Jill advertised 50% off “welcome back” sales.
“I like to see what I buy,” said Liz O’Donohue, 23, of Canton Township who scored three winter apparel items on sale from Dry Goods for just $28 altogether. “I needed to get out of the house.”
Dearborn’s Fairlane Town Center will reopen at 11 a.m. on Wednesday. In Taylor’s Southland Center, six businesses were open and a few more offered curbside pickup, according to its website. The outdoor Mall at Partridge Creek had about a dozen businesses open or offering appointments and several more offering curbside or carry-out service.
Many malls online also shared steps they had taken in response to the virus outbreak. Play areas were closed. They removed seating from common areas and food courts. Food trays were eliminated. Floor stickers reminded customers to keep six feet apart at Twelve Oaks.
Many retailers are recommending, if not requiring, customers wear masks. That can put businesses in a prickly situation, said Meegan Holland, spokeswoman for the Michigan Retailers Association. The organization is holding a webinar this week on de-escalation techniques for such situations.
“We feel we need to do it because there are retailers who are concerned about this, who need those shopping dollars,” Holland said. “It is really hard for a retailer to be put into an enforcement role, especially when there are no criminal penalties to back them up. You don’t want to endanger employees in confronting customers. We all know you aren’t paying them enough to do that.”
At Somerset, hand sanitizer stations appeared throughout the mall, and white gift bags containing complimentary face masks were available from the concierge staff. Some stores had social distancing markers on the floor outside their entrances. The mall also was offering free bottles of water in lieu of drinking fountains.
At the Louis Vuitton store on the south side of the mall, customers had to check in prior to joining the line to enter. Employees asked them while they waited if they were looking for particular items so they could verify they were in stock.
Tapper’s Diamonds and Fine Jewelry previously did curbside pickup and allowed guests to shop by appointment only. It was able to accommodate customers with special orders made prior to the shutdown, said Paul Rujuan, the store’s director, but Thursday was like opening day for baseball season.
“I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” Rujan said, adding that employees wipe down the store hourly. And they clean the jewelry after customers try it on.
“When we’re dealing with clients, we wear gloves,” he said. “Anything we can do to make it a better environment for somebody coming in and protect ourselves.”
Adkins, who was out shopping with her daughter, appreciates the safety measures and hopes some of them like hand sanitizing stations stay.
“I think it should have been there all along anyway,” she said “In general, colds, flus — we should have had this before.”
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