Say what you will about ecommerce, in-store sales still dwarf online sales—well, they did until two months ago anyway. For retailers deemed essential, a heartfelt thank you for everything, but this newsletter may not be for you. This is for the majority of retailers that were forced to shut down stores and are now slowly opening up again, as if stores can be switched off and on like a lightbulb.

Malls and non-essential stores across Saudi Arabia and the UAE are gradually reopening for the first time in many weeks taking a number of health and safety measures. At this stage this excludes entertainment venues, cinemas,… For example, Arabian Centres in Saudi Arabia, opened 20 shopping centres in 10 cities at the end of April, introducing a number of health and safety measures. This will be a herky-jerky set of fragmented openings, supported by a complex set of operating instructions by different countries or even different emirates. For example, in the UAE the government of Dubai has issued a detailed list of guidelines for reopening malls and offices. To support these specifications, any store-opening plan will need to be built in a cascading format. Plan for a similar set of actions taken in order, emirate by emirate, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, mall by mall, rolling one into the other. Proper execution will be a careful and delicate balance, much like a choir director conducting a song in the round. One voice out of sync, and beautiful music turns into cacophony.

Our focus over the coming weeks will be to provide a set of important thought-starters across a wide range of retail operations. This week, we are focusing on the store and considerations all retailers must undertake. To be sure, there are more considerations than we can list here, but we’ve tried to highlight key factors, that you might have already started thinking about and acted upon:

Prioritize safety over all else: This will involve both taking actions and communicating them clearly.

  • Before you open, clean the store thoroughly and revise the layout to incorporate social distancing best practices, going beyond local guidance if necessary.
  • Limit traffic and guide customers toward distancing. This may mean marking the floor; setting up one-way aisle rules; and adding conspicuous and clear signage and in-store announcements around hygiene and safety aimed at both employees and customers.
  • Requiring masks may feel like overkill, but customers will likely reward retailers that go beyond and have visible evidence that they are prioritizing safety. Avoid the debate about efficacy—nobody knows. What we do know is consumers will be tentative and scared. Don’t give them an excuse to walk past your door.

Create clear guidelines for employees and a hotline for questions: You will need protocols and measures that last beyond the opening plan and are ongoing for the foreseeable future. Protocols will also need to change often, and you must provide employees with one source for getting answers to questions. Measures may need to include:

  • Cleaning and sanitization processes and protocols that can be used in stores before and after reopening. Reconsider store hours to enable strict adherence.
  • A programme for employees in stores, distribution centres, and other locations to help staff identify symptoms and have protocols in place for every step to take when that happens.
  • Providing safety supplies such as masks, hand sanitizer, or wipes for customers.
  • Deploying and promoting contactless payment options.
  • Plans for cleaning high-touch and high-risk areas, such as PIN pads, doors, fitting rooms, restrooms, etc. This may require closing or modifying areas to encourage distancing, such as closing every other fitting room.
  • Adjusting customer-facing layouts and shelf space to minimize unnecessary touching of products. Improving sightlines to allow associates to provide assistance without being in close proximity of customers.
  • Offering scheduled appointments to customers, to the extent possible.
  • Consider relaxing return policies or requirements to enable drop-and-go returns that will then get processed when customers are not in the store.

Train employees on new procedures—and be flexible: Understand how to accommodate necessary new activities, which will now include expanded cleaning and sanitation, supporting ecommerce fulfillment, processing returns, etc.

  • Create trainings for new employees and those coming back from furloughs. Initial staffing levels will likely start at a minimal and will increase as sales recover.
  • Consider cross training. Build in flexibility, as things may not go perfectly. Have a plan for employee callouts, employees who have health concerns, and managing traffic. Train for the likeliest moments, such as how to deal with a customer who does not want to wait to enter a store. Provide practical solutions to practical problems.
  • Organize employees into cohorts that work exclusively together to reduce risks of infections and minimize overall disruptions.

Encourage click-and-collect options: Curbside pickup worked well in the US, and could be executed in the GCC. Going forward:

  • Find a way to make this option available. It can be done.
  • Restripe parking lots to support curbside and driveup pickups so that customers and employees are safe and feel safe as interactions occur.
  • Create and clearly display pickup FAQs and other how-to instructions for customers in designated areas outside so they don’t have to enter the store just to get questions answered.
  • To accommodate additional pickup and delivery, consider converting backrooms or entire stores into mini distribution centers with appropriate materials-handling equipment and infrastructure.

Having these store-opening fundamentals in place is the first step in trying to return to some semblance of normal operations. Of course, there are many more considerations, and our next topic will be focused on inventory.