Stores focus on cleaning to get shoppers back to spending

Forget about making shopping fun. As clothing retailers and others try to stay viable during the coronavirus pandemic, they're hoping steps like cleaning during store hours, offering hand sanitizer and other safety measures will bring in customers to spend.

At the same time, they are largely leaving fitting rooms open and not requiring shoppers to wear masks unless it's a local rule, despite public health experts who advise that masks, social distancing and good ventilation are key for safety. That may make some already-jittery shoppers more nervous.

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“Shopping was something I really enjoyed. I like to look at clothes and jewelry. It was almost like therapy,” said Hope Kaplan, a 62-year-old publicist who is now only willing to go to the dentist and CVS because she's worried about the coronavirus, especially with cases rising in her home of Tucson, Arizona.

It's a crucial moment for retailers, who are trying to recover from the worst sales slump on record. The months-long shutdowns accelerated store closings and bankruptcies. And some stores may start closing some locations again as cases climb in states like Florida, Arizona and Texas. Apple already has.

Retailers used to encourage shoppers to linger, offering enticements like food, trying on clothes and makeup and playing with toys in their stores - things you couldn't do on Amazon. Now stores are more grab-and-go, with curbside pick-up an option. But they say shoppers who want to hang out in the store still can.

“Shopping is an emotional experience,″ said Melissa Gonzalez, a New York-based retail consultant. “The problem is, how do you bring safety measures but still make shopping inviting and fun?”

Taking a page from retailers like Walmart, Target and Home Depot, which have stayed open because they were deemed essential businesses, many major retailers are making employees wear masks, constantly cleaning public areas, adding plexiglass shields by cashiers, limiting the number of customers in stores and adding signs that remind shoppers to keep six feet apart.

“I like that stores are constantly cleaning," said Madelyn Rouse, 17, of Chicago, who recently shopped at American Eagle Outfitters, Urban Outfitters and Forever 21.

Saks Fifth Avenue offers appointment shopping before and after hours, while J.C. Penney dedicates certain shopping hours to vulnerable customers. American Eagle and Sephora provide hand sanitizer at store entrances.

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Instead of letting customers sample makeup, Macy’s cosmetics counter employees show colored drawings of what the makeup looks like. Ulta Beauty and Sephora have phone apps that let customers virtually try on lipstick and other beauty products.

As for masks, which public-health experts encourage to curb the spread of the virus, American Eagle is one of the few requiring that customers wear them in all stores. It hands out masks at store entrances. American Eagle’s lingerie chain Aerie also has the same safety protocols in place. But having store workers enforce social distancing can be difficult, particularly when dealing with shoppers who don't want to wear masks.

Stores are also opening fitting rooms, which are crucial for many clothing shoppers but are also closely packed spaces where people could potentially infect each other. Even chains that initially closed dressing rooms, like Gap, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s, are now reopening them. The stores say they will remove clothing that's tried on from the sales floor for a few days. American Eagle is steam cleaning the rejected clothes.

Social distancing, masks, constant disinfecting and well-ventilated indoor spaces are all important, said Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University. He recommends keeping fitting rooms closed until a later phase in the reopening and believes clothes themselves are not a likely source of infection.

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Workers' top safety concern is that customers won't wear masks, said Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store union that represents roughly 6,300 New York-area Macy's and Bloomingdale's employees.

One Macy's worker in New York was apprehensive about returning to work in late June, but said he feels safe.

“You have to create an environment of safety for us and the customers,” said Steve Ward, 58, who works in the mattress area. “Before, our focus was just selling.

He sprays the mattress with disinfectant in front of customers before and after they try it out.