Going Viral

Life in the time of COVID-19. How are retailers feeling? Unessential and worried
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Posted April 7, 2020

“How’s it going?”

“How ya doin’?”

“Everything all right?”

Until a few months ago, these were the reflexive, mindless greetings exchanged on sidewalks, in shops and restaurants and wherever else people gathered.
Now those have become meaningful, even life-and-death, questions. Except the sidewalks are mostly empty. Shops are closed, and restaurants are islands of takeout only. Other public gatherings have practically disappeared.

Last month, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear – who has been as proactive as so many other American governors, though this commonwealth still has among the lower rates of infection to date – announced widespread “nonessential” store closings. The list includes clothing, sporting goods, department stores, shoe stores, jewelers, florists, furniture stores, bookstores, auto dealers, electronics and appliances, cosmetics and beauty supply stores, office suppliers and myriad others.

Spared, for the moment, are grocery stores, warehouse clubs and supercenters, gas stations and convenience stores, pet supply stores, hardware stores, liquor stores, banks, drug stores and pharmacies, and meat, seafood and fruit-and-vegetable markets. I’m sure it’s similar in your state.

It may be difficult for parts of this industry to accept being regarded as “nonessential,” but these are unusual times.

Normally, in Louisville, we’d be preparing for The Kentucky Derby and all of the gala events that precede the Derby, plus Mother’s Day, school graduations, proms and the wedding season. Instead, we’re staying at home, and the Derby has been rescheduled for the fall. Graduations and proms have been cancelled. This is a big economic hit on the city and the restaurants, hotels and shops who thrive during the Derby period, or what we here call, “the other holiday season.”

I walk my dog Sam every day on Bardstown Road, the main commercial avenue in my neighborhood, a street full of top-notch restaurants and various specialty stores. Most days and evenings, the sidewalks are full of strollers, people pouring into and out of the restaurants, going into the shops. Now it’s vacant and deserted, sort of like those dystopian movies that gained a following, largely because a landscape like that was seen as pure escapist fantasy. Fantasy has become reality, though we don’t yet have rolling gangs of marauders and zombies.

One sign of the apocalypse is the handprinted messages stuck on the restaurants’ windows, large lettering that “we’re still open for takeout” and instructions for calling or texting in orders and where to pick them up. It’s hard to tell how well the restaurants are surviving. In one stretch on our walk, Sam and I see plenty of people toting carry-out bags from the Indian and Chinese restaurants, the taco shop and gourmet café that sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the street. My neighbor is a chef and told me that in the first days of his restaurant being shut down there was gloom and uncertainty, but that now “our takeout business is going through the roof.”
The McDonald’s on the block has cars lined up as always in the drive-through, though notably not in the volume it normally has. I would have thought Big Mac drive-through business would have increased – even exploded.

I’m not worried about McDonald’s – or Big Lots or Costco or Kroger – riding this situation out. But I see local, independent bookstores and antique shops and clothing stores and housewares stores shut down. They may have put cheery, optimistic “open soon, see you then” posters on their doors, but it doesn’t feel like a time for cheery optimism. Not at the moment. These stores depend on a flow of capital. They depend on the free market exchange of commerce from people walking in with disposable money to retailers with goods. Unemployed people are struggling with disposable money right now, and even the retailers allowed to open their doors are struggling to keep shelves filled with goods.

Nor is it just the local independents. Some national chains, like Bed, Bath & Beyond, Pier One and all of The Gap properties, were already hanging by a thread. Macy’s and Kohl’s, among others, have announced huge “furloughs” of employees – Macy’s said it will cut “the majority” of its 125,000 workers. (“Furloughed” is such a less harsh word than “terminated.”) All those temporarily “furloughed” workers may or may not have jobs to return to when this is all over. As The New York Times reported, “A large part of the retail industry that is not involved in selling groceries, toilet paper or disinfectant simply has very little cash coming in.”

And yet, at any time of the day or evening, we see a steady stream of Amazon, UPS and FedEx trucks on the local streets, making their deliveries. UPS has its major distribution hub here, and there’s no decrease in the number of its jets in the skies overhead. Amazon, for its part, has pledged to hire at least 100,000 workers to deal with current demands, and to-date has hired some 80,000 people since that announcement.

Said the Times: “Though the cracks in bricks-and-mortar retail began forming years ago, the widening coronavirus outbreak stands to hasten physical retail’s decline and strengthen the monopoly hold of Amazon and other online giants.”

We’ve long seen the rise in popularity of e-commerce in the retail world. But who could have predicted a time when it would be practically the only – certainly the most reliable – source of merchandise for people stuck in their homes? Convenience has turned to desperation. These days, everyone’s shopping at home in their pajamas.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.