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Stores prepare for post-lockdown status

Many businesses have reopened, but they are still grappling with the long term.

By Lara Ewen
Since the coronavirus forced retail closures across the US, store owners have been facing difficult circumstances. Fortunately, they’ve developed innovative solutions to stay afloat and keep staff employed. Digital channels have offered new opportunities, and as states begin to reopen, customers have cautiously begun returning to brick-and-mortar. While there’s still no timeline for an end to COVID-19 restrictions, some of the strategies being developed now will become foundational as retail shifts to meet an extended period of uncertainty.

Navigating the new normal

Finding ways to connect with customers has been crucial in this environment.

“When we recognized we weren’t able to meet customers on a daily basis, we set up virtual appointments on our website,” said Steve Samaras, president and owner of Zachary’s Jewelers, which has two stores in Maryland. “And every Wednesday, we have a Facebook Live event. It’s fun, and it brings humanity to retail.”

Samaras, whose staff has been paid to work from home throughout the quarantine, said his revised sales strategy was helping him limit his losses. “In March, we were at 85% of last year’s March, and in April, we were at 65% of last year’s April, and in May, we should be close to 80% of last year’s May.”

Elsewhere, companies limited appointment schedules to ensure staff and customer safety.

“At first, we didn’t skip a beat,” related Lance Buttars, owner of Molinelli’s Jewelers in Pocatello, Idaho, who shut his doors on March 25 and reopened on May 1. “We were able to do some by-appointment business while we were officially closed, with limited staff and thermometers and masks and questionnaires.”

When traffic came back, though, it was light. “We’re still behind last year’s numbers. Last April, we did $175,000, and this April, we did $65,000, which, ouch. But there are some jewelers that did zero business because their mandate was much tighter than ours. I feel for a lot of my friends in [the] business.”

Some store closures have led owners to find innovative solutions.

“We have haven’t allowed [walk-ins] since the end of March,” said Richard Lee Mathis, owner of Symmetry Jewelers in New Orleans, Louisiana. “But we have curbside delivery, and we have one-on-one appointments, with sanitizing and masks and wiping everything down.”

Still, sales have been slow. “We’ve only sold two or three engagement rings online, and it’s been mostly custom, with emails and photos,” reported Mathis, who worked with his chief operating officer to make sure employees received their salaries throughout the closure. “The biggest challenge is having people feel comfortable getting out and comfortable in enclosed environments.”

Novel challenges ahead

Questions about how long this will last have made even optimistic retailers cautious about the future of their businesses.

“Our greatest concern is having to shelter again in the fall after being open for a few weeks this summer,” said Samaras. “I’m the eternal optimist, but it’s tough.”

Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep his website in shape so he can navigate the coming days. “I want to create an additional revenue stream from our web presence,” he said. “But will that be enough to keep [the] status quo? This trickles down to everyone, there will be retailers forced to close, and manufacturers that don’t make it through this. You just have to play it one day at a time.”

Not knowing what the future holds has made long-range holiday planning particularly difficult.

“I don’t think anybody at any location will realize the full effect of this for several months,” said Buttars. “It will touch us all in a hard way. People are cautious, and everyone is trying to figure out a new normal. And I’m nervous about the Christmas season, because a lot of people who thought they were okay might not be okay by then.”

Buttars agreed the worst might not be over. “Be prepared for a round two,” he cautioned. “Think about whether this happens again.”

While digital was top of mind everywhere, just as important were dreams of returning to normal.

“People who have better websites and who can have their products delivered will do better than stores that rely on foot traffic,” observed Mathis. “But not everyone feels comfortable buying a $5,000 stone on the internet. People still want to buy big-ticket items in person.”

By the numbers
  • In the first quarter of 2020, the number of US jewelry businesses fell 4.2% year on year to 24,280.

  • Swiss watch exports slid 22% overall for March, although exports to the US went up 21%.

  • Projected US consumer spending on jewelry for Mother’s Day was $5.27 billion, an estimated increase of 1.5%.

  • Sales of luxury goods will drop 20% to 35% this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, analysts predict.

  • The number of US retail jobs fell by 2.1 million in April, with 740,000 out of work at clothing and accessories stores.
  • Sources: Jewelers Board of Trade (JBT), Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, National Retail Federation (NRF), Bain & Company, US Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics

    Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2020. To subscribe click here.

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