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Christopher Dufton, the general manager of Sonic Boom Music, places a crate with items for customers to pick up on April 12, 2020.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

It is unusual for a retailer to boast about having relatively few customers in its stores. But in a world where shoppers are spooked by the COVID-19 pandemic, an empty store is a kind of asset.

This week, Sleep Country Canada Holdings Inc. outlined its plans for reopening locations across Canada. In a release, the company pointed out that because it is a specialty retailer, its stores “by nature remain a very low traffic destination,” which will allow for more physical distancing. It is also introducing hand sanitizer stations in stores, mandatory disposable mattress and pillow protectors for every customer trying out a product, and floor decals to show how much space people should keep from each other.

These kinds of reassurances are becoming more common as “non-essential” retailers that had to shut their doors begin to make plans to reopen. As they do, they are confronting a new normal in retail, needing to reassure both customers and staff that they are safe in stores.

Retail reopenings will happen gradually across the country depending on provincial guidelines. In Ontario, for example, some retailers including garden centres and hardware stores were permitted to open this past weekend, while other stores with street-facing entrances could offer curbside purchase pickup starting Monday.

In Quebec, stores outside Greater Montreal began reopening last week. British Columbia has targeted mid-May for reopenings and has encouraged businesses to take safety measures. Those include installing plexiglass barriers at checkouts, similar to what many grocers have already done, screening customers for signs of illness, and encouraging or requiring people to wear non-medical-grade masks in stores.

Like all retailers, Hudson’s Bay Co. is following provincial guidelines and reopening in phases.

“Where you enter and where you exit is important to help the flow [of traffic]. … We think that sanitation stations are opportunities in stores. Face coverings are a key issue. Health screenings for [employees] are really important,” said Iain Nairn, president of Hudson’s Bay.

Starbucks Canada, which closed most of its cafés in Canada in March and has been offering only drive-through and delivery services, will have reopened 65 per cent of its locations by the end of this week and 85 per cent by the end of the month.

The company is asking customers to wear masks in stores and requiring employees to do so. Employees will also undergo temperature checks and screenings for symptoms before each shift. More than 20,000 employees are undergoing training on new procedures, such as increased cleaning protocols, how to use gloves and masks, and how to limit contact with customers when handing out orders.

Tim Hortons parent company Restaurant Brands International has also been doing temperature checks with employees, and has introduced mandatory masks and gloves for staff. The company is now considering whether reusable masks should be part of staff uniforms.

The company’s fast-food restaurants have been open for takeout and will begin opening in-store seating again, with signs asking people not to sit at some tables to keep customers apart.

“We have fully embraced the notion that parts of our restaurants need to change – certainly, for the foreseeable future and possibly forever,” RBI chief executive officer Jose Cil said in an open letter released on Tuesday.

For retailers, reopening means striking a balance between customer service and policing people’s behaviour in stores to ensure adequate physical distancing. That means stores may feel less welcoming, but companies hope the trade-off is that customers feel comfortable enough to come and shop.

Luxury retailer Holt Renfrew will be installing stanchions at its entrances, as well as extra staff, to limit the number of shoppers entering the store at one time. The stores will not be accepting cash “for the foreseeable future,” the company wrote in a statement this week. Beauty services such as makeovers and facials have been suspended. Rather than allowing sampling of makeup products, staff will demonstrate product use on paper “face charts.”

In Quebec, La Maison Simons chose to delay its opening until May 19 to give staff extra time to implement new procedures and to clean the large-footprint stores. It has also installed plexiglass barriers and sanitizing stations, and will be limiting the number of shoppers.

“You have to reopen with people that want to be there, that feel safe and customers that feel secure," CEO Peter Simons said. “... When I shut it down, it was the hardest thing I’ve done in 30 years of working in retail. Opening up is even harder.”

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