The Week Here: Is It Safe?
14 May 2020
For stores and brands alike – safety is everything, clienteling is key, and independents unite.
“For pandemic-era retailers, the more obvious signs of cleaning, the better … Visibility offers reassurance, and wary shoppers need reassurance,” wrote Jessica Testa and Elizabeth Paton in The New York Times.
What could be more transparent than glass? “Literal ‘window shopping’ for clothes might also be making a comeback,” reported Lauren Thomas for CNBC, who noted the new relevance of a “strategically” stocked display.
With more than half of America beginning the process of reopening, bespoke brand Suitsupply – which has stores dotted across the country – installed clear partitions in their fitting-room areas; arm slots allow associates to still pin jacket cuffs and mark pant hems.
And in Paris, the world’s fashion capital, the lights are turning back on. Masked shop assistants, armed with sanitiser dispensers, greeted customers with an entreaty to “refresh” their hands.
Will all this make for an atmosphere as sterile as the disinfectants?
Perhaps not. With fewer shoppers around, the experience will be a more personalised one. According to Testa and Paton, “customers should expect a higher degree of service and attention, regardless of how much they can spend.”
A GAME OF TRUST
A feeling of safety is as much influenced by psychological factors as it is by the physical environment. The quality of human interaction, which is in limited supply for the foreseeable, will be a powerful determinant.
Neil Boyarksy, cofounder of fitness startup Bandier, believes more than ever in the value of fostering close relationships with regulars. “Customers might talk about products with their local store associate over the phone, who would then send products for them to try on at home,” reported Fast Company. “We’re going back to old-fashioned clienteling,” said Boyarsky.
Personal shopping is becoming democratic. Retailers like Warby Parker are enabling in-store appointments. Suitsupply is offering pre-booked private shopping suites. Do we need technology to deliver on the promise of personalised experience? It appears not.
And it is not just about customer relations – responsible companies who are prioritising both their staff and suppliers stand to benefit from public confidence. Before the pandemic, nearly two thirds of us were influenced by a brand’s stance on social or political issues when making buying decisions. What happens to that decision-making process on the other side? “When rattled customers re-emerge, trust will be a valuable asset and one uniquely suited to small businesses,” wrote Kyle Stock in Bloomberg Businessweek.
THE MORE THE MERRIER
With the new skills gleaned from adapting their way in real-time through a crisis, some business owners are even thinking of pursuing public policy for a more secure future – either by taking direct action or through collective changes to how they operate.
Sarah McNally – the iconoclastic proprietor of revered NYC bookstore McNally Jackson – shared her post-Covid aspirations with Bloomberg Businessweek: “I’ve actually decided that when I’m done getting this company through the coronavirus, I think I want to get involved in small-business advocacy. I’m just outraged. I’m just so outraged.”
And in the fashion industry, a group of brands and retailers, led by Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, signed a petition calling for urgent transformation – starting with the realignment of seasonal fashion deliveries and the delay of discounting.
Their stated goals of generating “less unnecessary product, less waste … and less travel,” all build on the “carbon neutral” ethos that has been trending since last season. “None of the ideas under discussion are new,” wrote Christina Binkley in Vogue Business. The difference is in how this “unusual coalition” is treating the current crisis as a catalyst for change.
The pandemic’s domino effect on the creative and retail sectors has been widely chronicled – with all players swiftly subjected to corona-induced seismic shifts. With calls for independents to unite, ideas like a fashion freelancers union are also gaining traction. Tamar Cincik, founder and CEO of the UK lobbying group Fashion Roundtable, noted: “For people in fashion to understand why they need a union, it needs a culture change. But if a pandemic is anything – and it is many things – it is a culture change where the floor is taken away from under you.”
We’re rebuilding the plane in mid-air. Perhaps now is the moment to recognise our strength in numbers.
Words by Amy Tai, creative consultant and native New Yorker now based in London.