At Olympian Sports in downtown Saskatoon, customers can still try on a pair of skates. But first, they’ll need to slip a plastic bag on their foot.
The likelihood of contracting COVID-19 through a sock by trying on footwear may seem unlikely, but owner Bill Hood is taking every precaution he can to make people feel comfortable coming into the store.
These kinds of calculations are occurring across the country, after Ontario, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island allowed some retailers to reopen last week, and other provinces such as Alberta and Quebec eased restrictions on stores earlier this month.
Mr. Hood closed the store on March 18, and one week into reopening, he is seeing 20 to 25 per cent of the traffic he would normally expect in the store. Customers normally buying equipment for team sports are instead purchasing more items such as backyard baseball nets and tees. Like many retailers, Olympian is limiting the number of people allowed in at one time and restricting how freely they move about the store.
“It’s slow-trodding,” he said. “But it’s certainly busier than it was in mid-March. There’s less fear.”
At Aritzia Inc. stores, clothing is put through high-temperature steaming after each try-on and fitting rooms are sanitized between every customer. The retailer, which has reopened 20 stores in Alberta and British Columbia and one in Saskatchewan, has so far found customers are patient with lineups due to new capacity limits.
“Traffic demonstrates that there is clearly an appetite to shop in-store,” the company said in a statement.
Still, retailers have noted that shoppers quickly fall into old browsing habits and need to be reminded to maintain physical distancing, said Diane Brisebois, president and chief executive officer of the Retail Council of Canada. The group created a playbook for retailers with global examples of steps stores are taking to protect staff and customers.
“There is not one perfect solution,” she said. “ … How long do you need to quarantine certain products? Could you infect fabric? How long does the virus live inside a shoe? There’s no scientific report saying, ‘Here are the timelines for these products, or fabrics.’ So everyone is adjusting as they go.”
While sales have slowed down since reopening, retailers have generally been pleased with traffic so far, Ms. Brisebois said. But those with significant presence in shopping malls, which have not been allowed to reopen in Ontario and Quebec, are still suffering, she added.
Even those that are open are restricted in their operations. With just 1,200 square feet of space, specialty store The Runner’s Core in Ajax, Ont., is setting up appointments with customers, and asking drop-ins to wait for an opening. A large plexiglass barrier sits beside the treadmill to allow staff to do gait analysis while keeping separate from customers.
On the first day open last Tuesday, owner Steve Ockrant had a difficult time closing at the end of the day because of all the demand. Still, his sales so far have been half of what they typically would be.
“My first customers were a father and daughter who want to run together, and came in to get fitted for shoes,” Mr. Ockrant said. “We’re a specialty store; I never saw families. [The pandemic] brought people out, saying, ‘I need to exercise.’ ”
It has also brought out parents desperate to keep children busy and entertained during isolation.
“Swing sets are the new toilet paper. It’s crazy,” said Vic Bertrand, president and CEO of Toys “R” Us Canada. “Every parent wants a playground in their backyard now. … We’re working really hard to keep up with demand.”
Inside the stores, play areas have been removed and items such as bicycles are being wiped down after every customer contact.
When the retailer closed its 82 stores across Canada, it did not have a curbside pickup program for online orders, and had to build one from scratch in 48 hours – it would not have had the capacity to meet the surge in online demand otherwise, Mr. Bertrand said. Even as Toys "R" Us has reopened 62 of its stores so far, demand for the curb-side service has not abated.
“In terms of consumer habit, it’s probably going to stick around in a very meaningful way,” he said.
In Saskatoon, the pandemic made Mr. Hood realize he has some catching up to do. He’s been in the retail business since 1973, and has never had an e-commerce presence.
“When there’s a storm, you find all the cracks. This is one of them,” he said. "I don’t think we can survive just being brick and mortar.”
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