For most of 2020, small businesses all across the US have had their hands full trying to stay afloat amid the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. For some, it has meant slashing costs to the bone and putting their operations in hibernation with the hopes of a resumption when the crisis abates. For others, it has meant doubling down on online sales and work-from-home strategies, often by standing up new digital operations in a big hurry.
That said, as much of the nation begins to take tentative steps towards reopening local economies, small retail businesses face a new challenge: figuring out how to reopen safely and do business in what is being called the ‘new normal’. The trouble with that is the fact that there’s no single, unified strategy for them to follow. With the federal government offering little more than vague guidelines (that some states have all but disregarded already), making sure to get things right when reopening can make or break an already ailing business.
Safe COVID Reopening for Small Retailers
The best course of action is to study all of the available resources and adopt a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach that covers all the bases and keeps customers and employees as safe as possible. To help, here’s a guide to developing a reopening plan that does that.
Study Local Requirements
The first step for small retail businesses as they develop a reopening plan is to find out exactly what local authorities require them to do in terms of safety. In some areas, where the infection rate has remained low, there may not be too many hard and fast requirements to follow. In other places, local officials are calling for maximum caution and have issued lengthy guidelines for businesses to adhere to.
The US Chamber of Commerce has prepared an interactive map that should point small retail business owners in the right direction to find out what their municipality requires them to do. Whatever the local requirements, they should serve as a baseline to help business owners begin their draft planning. By making sure that all required steps are part of the plan, they’ll also make sure not to run afoul of local licensure requirements, and protect their business from liability upon reopening.
Secure Protective Equipment for Employees
Since providing store employees with the right equipment to keep them safe and healthy as they return to work is an absolute must, procuring an adequate supply of what’s needed is the next step. Once again, some states are helping small businesses with this all-important process by offering free or subsidized equipment on an as-needed basis. Most states with such programs require small businesses to sign up online, and the sooner the better. Even after months of lead time, certain kinds of PPE are still in short supply.
In some cases, it’s possible to purchase things like N95 or washable cloth masks on the open market. But small businesses often lack the clout to do so at a sustainable cost. The good news is, some small business cooperatives are stepping up to help secure supplies through collective bidding. In the long run, this option might be the best one for most small businesses to pursue. Finding a way to secure a private supply of PPE is going to be critical once government programs cease, so getting it done now could save plenty of headaches later.
In most locales, businesses that reopen are still going to have to abide by social distancing guidelines for the foreseeable future. In the small retail footprint of a typical small business, that’s no easy feat. With limited space to display products to begin with, this means some amount of reorganization is the order of the day. The first step to doing this is to examine sales data to determine which products are most vital to the business’s bottom line. The identified products should be guaranteed retail space, while all others displayed on a more limited basis.
If space is in especially short supply, consider moving any back stock to an offsite location (home, storage unit) to open up as much retail floor space as possible. Then look at the historical sales trends for each essential product and plan to stock enough to cover approximately 20% of that volume. With foot traffic reduced, this is a decent starting point that should keep most products on shelves without wasting space. Along the way, make sure to leave enough room to give customers a wide berth to maintain social distancing as they shop.
Address Sanitation and Environmental Quality
With product displays all set, the next step is to figure out how to effectively sanitize the store on an ongoing basis and make sure its environmental quality is as safe as possible. Of course, the core component of doing this is to put stepped-up cleaning protocols in place using the CDC’s guidance as a basis for the plan. But with so much still unknown about the coronavirus’s transmission vectors, small businesses shouldn’t stop there.
First, they should take steps to sanitize their store’s air conditioning units and find ways to increase the outside air circulation as much as possible. This might require raising the store’s temperature a bit and leaving some doors or windows open, preferably with strategically placed fans bringing in air from outside. While this is hardly the most efficient thing to do, there’s enough uncertainty surrounding the role of HVAC systems in spreading coronavirus that small businesses shouldn’t take chances. As an alternative, businesses should explore installing a UV light sterilization system in their HVAC equipment. With studies showing UV light to be effective at killing coronavirus, it’s a cost-effective way to build in some extra protection without sacrificing energy efficiency.
Since indoor environments pose so many issues under these circumstances, small businesses should also consider seeking permission for outdoor storefront displays. They’re far safer for customers and provide some much-needed extra space to keep indoor spaces clean and socially-distanced. In most locations, officials are making provisions for businesses to use outdoor spaces temporarily. Although the moves are aimed at restaurants, other retailers can secure the needed permissions just the same.
Don’t Take Chances
Although it’s tempting to speed up the process on the way to a reopening, small retail businesses must think through every step before they do so. This is not only due to the possible legal ramifications of failing to abide by local reopening guidelines but also due to the very real possibility that any health issues traced back to their location could mean the end of their business. After fighting so hard to get through the closures, that would be an ignominious way to go out.
The most important thing for small retail businesses to do before reopening is to make sure nothing’s been overlooked. From regimented cleaning to adapted sales practices, they’ll only get one chance to get things right. And getting it right will also go a long way toward convincing wary customers that it’s safe to go shopping again. And in the end, that’s going to be the make-or-break factor in a small retailer’s survival – so it’s worth as much preparatory work and time as is needed.
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