Business beginnings: What local retail looks like when shops reopen May 12

On Tuesday, May 12, many businesses that have been required to remain closed for more than a month will have the opportunity to reopen.

Consumer, retail and service businesses can once again invite customers inside their brick and mortar locations, providing they follow the Responsible RestartOhio guidelines set by the state. Those include employees being required to wear face coverings, limiting the number of people in the store, maintaining social distancing for employees and customers, a plan for sanitizing the space, and daily employee health checks.

Having these precautions outlined has made some local shops feel ready to give it a go.

“I’m excited to reopen because personally, I love working from home, but I’m ready to be back,” says Kelcie Webster, manager of Champion City Guide & Supply at 36 N. Fountain Ave., Springfield. The store will open with limited hours to start off – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Those shortened hours are an example of the types of strategies the Small Business Development Center of Springfield’s Executive Director Rob Alexander hopes local businesses will use when determining when and how they want to reopen.

Alexander says he wants local businesses to look at what opening will mean to them and have a plan before jumping back in.

“I’m not sure you can make that decision without sitting down and putting some numbers on paper, because your sales probably won’t be as high as before, and if all your expenses are the same, it might not be economical to open,” he says. “You don’t know until you do the math.”

Choosing when to reopen is about more than just economics, he adds, stressing the importance of making sure there are policies and procedures in place to help employees feel safe about returning to their jobs.

“I think that owners need to be human first and a business owner second. They need to have open and honest, heartfelt conversations with their staff because everyone is coming from a different place,” Alexander says. “Your employees need to feel safe and feel understood and trust you in this time when they feel vulnerable and perhaps unsafe.

“I think there’s a danger of losing some of your best people because you weren’t very sensitive to how they felt because of this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Ginny Riley, owner of Sugar Shelf Boutique in downtown New Carlisle, says she is connecting with her employees by talking to them about what hours they feel comfortable working as the store sets to reopen with limited hours starting Tuesday.

“I don’t want to go in full, 100 percent, hit the ground running,” she says. “I want to kind of ease into it to keep us safe and keep the customers safe.”

The boutique – which stands out with its bright pink front door – sells unique clothing, accessories, gifts and more. It has eased back into business this week by allowing customers to come to the store one at a time by appointment only. Riley says the soft opening has allowed customers waiting to return or exchange items an opportunity to do so without overcrowding the store when it opens officially next week.

But even then, Sugar Shelf will limit the small shop to no more than five customers at a time to make sure everyone has space to maintain social distancing guidelines, Riley says. And while she won’t require customers to wear masks, she says they should if that’s what makes them feel most comfortable when they visit.

“I’m a little nervous just about being back in the public because there are risks no matter what,” Riley says. “But, I’m also really excited about seeing all the customers again.

“You build relationships with these customers, and they become your friends. I see them on Facebook Live, but it will be great just to be able to talk to them again and feel a little bit of the normalcy that we haven’t felt in so long.”

While the shop has a retail storefront, it has a popular online presence with Riley’s weekly Facebook Live sales. To help local customers avoid hefty shipping costs and get their goods quickly, Riley has offered no-contact pickup from a drop box in front of the boutique, which she says she’ll continue to help reduce the number of customers who need to enter the store.

Strong customer service efforts like Riley’s could be what propels some businesses do to well in the tough environment they’ll continue to face for the foreseeable future, says Horton Hobbs, vice president of economic development for The Chamber of Greater Springfield.

Between pent-up demand and consumers excited to feel like they can return to some kind of normal routine, Hobbs said business owners need to remember to have patience with both their customers and their coworkers.

“It’s not that you're open. It’s how you’re open,” he emphasizes. “Customer service is more important now for the small business owner than it’s ever been.”

Alexander echoes those sentiments, saying “I think that your customer service and customer experience is going to become even more important now. I think how you make people feel when they walk in the door is going to affect not only whether they want to stay in your store and return to your store, but also how much they choose to spend.”

Along with customer service, Hobbs says businesses sticking to the state guidelines will be vital to them staying open.

“What I’m fearful of is that if people don’t obey those things and the governor’s office gets wind of that, you don’t know what decisions will be made down the line,” he says.

Alexander expanded on that, saying customers feeling like businesses have made their health a priority will be an expectation for many and could determine where people ultimately decide to spend their money.

“If you present anything that’s less than someone would perceive as a safe environment, you run the risk of losing customers who come into the store,” he says. “You have to take a hard stance on putting customers first, regardless of your own feelings.”

For Champion City, that will mean a specific cleaning schedule, extra cleaning on high contact items – such as credit card machines – and trying to adjust to the different comfort levels each customer might have.

Staying flexible and continuing to look for ways to adapt will also prove beneficial for small businesses as they navigate the future, Alexander says.

Many consumers have changed some of their shopping habits because of the pandemic. New options, such as curbside pickup, could be something customers continue to expect and even rely on moving forward, Alexander says.

“I think businesses have to assume that we’re not going back to the way it was before. People have learned how this can work in a different way, and a lot of people like it this way, at least while they have fears,” he adds. “I think local businesses will have to keep pushing forward and keep pushing for new ways of thinking about their business.”

However, these new ways of thinking don’t always mean having to reinvent the wheel.

“We’re a community. We’re not a city or county made up of singular, individual businesses that are operating in a vacuum,” Hobbs says. “These businesses should feel like they have a forum and can share ideas.

“We’re all going to have to work together and be creative and develop an ecosystem that helps support businesses.”

Webster says those business relationships are a huge part of why she feels its so important to reopen Champion City – which is a partnership with the Chamber and the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“One of the things we’ve see with all the momentum in downtown Springfield – it was hard to see that stop in a lot of ways because of all this,” Webster says. “We still want people to come downtown and come to the store and to want to support local businesses. Part of what’s important about coming back is that when we’re back, it’s going to help other places, and other places will help us, too.”

To let customers know which businesses will be open, when, and what retail or services they provide, the Chamber has dedicated an area of it’s Expand Greater Springfield page to just that.

By clicking, any Clark County business can post their information to make it available to consumers. The page opened Wednesday, and it already had about 150 businesses registered by the end of the day.

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.