“We’re sanitizing everything like crazy”: How five Toronto store owners are reopening
After two months on lockdown, street-facing retail stores were officially allowed to reopen this week. Toronto Life chatted with a few local shopkeepers about how they’re adjusting to the regulation changes, their reopening strategies and what they’re doing to keep employees and customers safe.
Yvonne Reidy and Danielle Gulic
Danielle: “We closed before we were forced to, on March 15. We wanted to encourage people to stay home. Of course, it was stressful making rent and waiting for daily announcements from the government. We’ve been watching CBC super-closely. We still wanted to be there for our community and stay relevant, so we’ve been doing virtual appointments with brides.”
Yvonne: “We wanted to give them a moment of excitement in this time of uncertainly, and to reassure them that no dates would change on our side. We could still get them their dress if they chose to have a small, intimate ceremony, which many have chosen to do. Of course, we haven’t been able to do any in-person dress fittings, but both of us have been at the shop every day since we closed, either fulfilling online orders or doing virtual appointments with brides, where we narrow down their selections so when they can come in it’s a more seamless experience.
Right now we’re overwhelmed about being allowed to reopen. It feels quick. We’re figuring out what we’re most comfortable with. For now, we will be only opening to a limited number of brides per day, by appointment. We will keep retail online-only. There are still many questions about contact with product, and how to properly sanitize everything.”
Danielle: “We also want to get a read on the community, and see whether they’re ready to go shopping in a store. We knew it was inevitable we’d be able to reopen, it just seemed a little abrupt and unexpected on a Thursday before the long weekend.”
Yvonne: “Most shop owners we know are going to see how it goes in the next few weeks for those who do decide to open. I don’t know anyone who’s dying to get out and go shopping right now.”
Danielle: “We will start one-on-ones this week. It’s just Yvonne and I, so we will have reduced hours. We have sneeze guards set up, but still need to figure out some logistics. We will have to adjust our techniques to provide an intimate dress-fitting experience while following distancing guidelines. For instance, we will have to guide brides to use clamps themselves, to get a better idea of how the dress can look. We also have to make sure there’s time between appointments to steam all the fabrics.”
Yvonne: “We’re learning and adjusting every day. The best step forward for us is a very slow one. We are excited to hopefully get back to normal soon, but we don’t want it to be rushed.”
Owner, Good Neighbour
“We closed on March 16, before the mandate, without any reassurances from the government about financial assistance or when we’d get to re-open. Our online store was never really a revenue-generating outlet for us before. But these circumstances made it come alive—our online sales increased 50 per cent during the closure. It was still a drop in the bucket compared to what we do in brick-and-mortar, but it was enough to get us through. I did all deliveries around the city myself because I wanted to continue seeing my clientele. In terms of being allowed to reopen, it’s a huge relief—I can finally breathe again.
But I’m a bit nervous. We’re taking every possible precaution to protect ourselves, our customers and our families. We have numerous safety measures we’re taking, including bringing in a professional cleaning crew four times a week, making everyone wear a mask, replacing dressing room curtains with doors for easier sanitization and installing sneeze guards at the counter. We are also restricting the flow of traffic and limiting how many people can enter the store. There can be ten people on the main floor, plus two sales associates, and two people on the second floor, plus one sales associate. We bought a ton of automatic sanitizer dispensers. We are going to discourage people from trying things on unless they really have to, and staff will be steaming any product that is tried on. We’re also holding an hour before opening and after closing for one-on-one appointments. If you don’t want to be around the public, you can come in then. I know these measures will cost us money upfront as a business, but hopefully they will help make the community feel comfortable.”
Kelly and Christina McDowell
Kelly: “It was tough at the beginning, mostly because we didn’t know how long this would last. Once we realized it was going to be longer than a two-week thing, we had to figure out a way to make shopping work for our clients who like to come in and touch and feel product. We are big on the in-shop experience, and aren’t a heavily digital store. A few weeks ago we decided to offer personal shopping with Christina, over phone and video, where she’d edit a rack of clothing and showcase pieces to clients. We’ve also been making masks from leftovers of our own collections, which have been selling out. Sadly, someone broke into the store a few weeks ago, so we’ve been completely boarded up. Every time I’ve come in to pack orders it’s been so dark in. But today we finally opened our shutters and it’s amazing to have some light.
“We’re not 100 per cent open to the public. It happened so quickly and we didn’t feel ready. Now that we’re allowed to open, we are going to continue with curbside pickup, virtual appointments and also offer private one-on-one appointments inside the store. We’ll still curate customized racks for each customer, but she’ll be able to come in and touch it and try it on without pressure of other people in the store. We’re getting into a rhythm of steaming clothes, contactless payment and delivering shipments to customers. We’re sanitizing everything like crazy and wearing masks and gloves. We will have to alter what we’re buying slightly. Our customers have always wanted nice, luxurious casual clothes, but they also purchased a lot of event pieces, which obviously isn’t happening right now.”
Retail manager, Kotn
“We closed the weekend before it was mandated. We’re in lucky position because our business is primarily driven by e-commerce. That said, we have relationships with the people who live near our locations, and not seeing those familiar faces has been a challenging adjustment. We’re taking a slow and steady approach to reopening. Our biggest consideration is the safety of our customers and staff. Though we were allowed to reopen this week, we are planning to wait until early June. And even then we will only be offering curbside pickup and one-on-one appointments. We won’t allow walk-ins for the time-being. We want to have time to put in place proper safety precautions. We will need to provide PPE for customers, determine how and when we sanitize our stores and put in place a procedure for returns. Nobody knows what the answer is, so we’re using this time to connect with other businesses, find out what works for them and learn what will be safest for us. We want to leave some time to assess what’s happening so we can make the most informed decisions.”
Julie Watt and Katie Smith
Owners, August Kinn
Julie: “The first big change was that we had to sadly lay off our staff. Katie and I are both moms, so we had to do full-time childcare at home while managing all of our online operations. We’re a kids’ store, so as long as babies are still being born, and virtual baby showers are still happening, we’re still selling a lot of baby gifts. We’ve been offering a virtual concierge service where we put gifts together for customers. We’re also leaning on our social media a lot more than we used to, and doing a lot of store tours on Instagram Stories, so people can see what products we have in stock.”
Katie: “We wanted to keep shipping costs low by delivering packages ourselves, so we’d go out in the evening once our kids were in bed, and hand-deliver as many orders as we could. Setting aside a few days of the week to do curbside pickup helped ease our workload.”
Julie: “At the start of the pandemic, we were dreaming about the day we could reopen. But now that we’ve been in it so long we have mixed feelings. Keeping our families and community safe is our biggest priority—especially since we’re in such a family-oriented community. We don’t want to rush into anything. We will slowly move toward reopening, but for now we will continue with our online store and sidewalk pickup option. We also want to see how reopening goes with other retail spaces. We hope there won’t be a spike in cases as more community interactions take place. No one has a crystal ball—we won’t fully reopen until we have proof that all of these measures in retail spaces are effective.”
Katie: “If we didn’t have the online store we might feel differently. Before, only about 30 to 40 per cent of our sales were online. But we’ve been able to offer all our products and services virtually and feel confident we can keep that up until our kids are in daycare and everyone feels comfortable shopping in-person again.”