Florida retail gets back to business

Reopening serves as a test for other states

In late March, states around the country began enacting stay-at-home orders and requested all nonessential businesses shut their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many retailers had to find ways to sell products while keeping in line with social distancing, and as different areas of the country continue to experience the pandemic in different ways, the experience of retailers across the country has varied. For Florida retailers, this disruption lasted a little over a month.

On May 4, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis began Phase 1 of reopening, which allowed restaurants and retailers to open at 25 percent capacity. Two weeks later, the governor increased retail operations to 50 percent, a move he called entering “Full Phase 1.” The state entered Phase 2 on June 5, which allows retail to operate at full capacity. Florida’s reopening has served as a test for other states, as it is one of the largest to begin returning to more regular business operations.

Innovating to stay in business

Ashley Thomas owns Sparkle Tallahassee, a women’s clothing boutique in Florida’s panhandle. The store has been open for nine years; Thomas says business was booming at the start of 2020 and it had experienced tremendous growth from the previous year. But like so many other businesses, when Sparkle had to shut its doors in March, sales plummeted and it was difficult to pay the monthly bills.

Thomas and her team had to quickly adjust to the new reality, and decided the best route was for her and three other staff members to move inventory to their homes. Thomas, a pregnant mother of three, began selling orders through social media and its website. The business offered free shipping to keep customers interested, and she says margins were hit significantly due to shipping costs.

Exterior of The Bookmark in Florida

The new reality: Reopening in Phase 1

Rona Brinlee of The BookMark, a locally owned independent bookstore in Neptune Beach, Fla., says her community has come together to support local businesses. Sales have fallen dramatically since March, but Brinlee says customers have been very supportive and vocal about how much they miss the in-store shopping experience, including personal recommendations from the store’s knowledgeable staff.

While The BookMark never fully closed, it reduced hours and only offered purchases via curbside pickup. It also offered free shipping and delivery to those who live near the store. Customers were allowed to browse again beginning June 1, with limited hours and a variety of protective measures including providing face masks and hand sanitizer, maintaining a rigorous daily cleaning procedure, and reconfiguring the store layout to allow social distancing.

The BookMark has provided a means to escape the current reality through reading. “People have sought out bookstores after a crisis for conversation and good reading,” Brinlee says. “Reading has been and continues to be important during this pandemic.”

The future of shopping in Florida

While most of the state has mostly or fully reopened, there is an exception: South Florida. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties make up 54 percent of Florida’s confirmed coronavirus cases, so businesses must submit written requests to be part of Phase 2. Andrew Hellinger, a Miami developer currently working on a 2,000,000-square-foot shopping center, believes the prolonged closure of retail stores has created pent-up demands for goods and dining.

Hellinger predicts that when retailers begin to reopen, consumers will quickly return to their local markets and begin socializing with friends, colleagues and relatives. “Once the fears of the disease subside, there will be a surge of shoppers seeking retail therapy,” he says, “the in-store shopping experiences and dining/entertainment experiences that we crave.”

The biggest takeaway he has gained from this experience is the importance of flexibility and innovation. Retailers that can pivot quickly, whether that means taking inventory home and selling it via social media or restructuring the store to accommodate social distancing, will be the ones that will succeed in the long term.

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