Nebraska Crossings explores the next phase of retail

While the mall never technically closed, it’s reworked procedures in an effort to keep employees and customers safe
Operation Open Doors

NRF's Operation Open Doors provides a roadmap for safely reopening stores.

Developed with input from hundreds of retailers brought together by NRF, the initiative provides operational guidelines and considerations in four areas: health and safety, people and personnel, logistics and supply chain, and litigation and liability.

Learn more.

With the state of Nebraska one of the few without a formal government-mandated stay-at-home order, Nebraska Crossings was an ideal testing ground for retailers who wanted to explore what it would take to reopen.

“We started thinking around the first of April about retailers that have 400 stores in their portfolio,” says Rod Yates, owner and developer of Nebraska Crossings. “How are they going to take on that daunting task of reopening? We wanted to build a test case of what it would take to change stores and retrain employees.”

Nebraska Crossings is a 376,000-square-feet outdoor outlet mall in Gretna, Neb., between Omaha and Lincoln. The mall never technically closed during the pandemic, with some of its retailers offering online fulfillment or curbside pickup. But with retailers shutting all stores and the state’s governor suggesting Nebraskans stay home, the mall was pretty quiet most days—until April 24, when it began allowing retail employees back in as part of a “soft reopening.”

It was a time of retraining and allowing employees “just to be around people again,” Yates says.  By May 1, some 20 stores and three restaurants were open to the public. The first weekend, Yates says, many of those open had record sales.

“People were coming from stay-at-home states that surround us, driving in, spending thousands of dollars,” he says. “They didn’t know when their states would open back up.”

To prepare for reopening, the mall owners put together an opening kit with thermometers and masks for each store and provided plexiglass shields. Stores also started building their own kits, Yates says.

Opening weekend was “phenomenal,” he says. “I didn’t get a rock concert crowd. I got people who had been pent up and ready to do some shopping. They were aware of what we expected from them as a shopper and consumer.”

Here are five ways Nebraska Crossings changed its procedures to be ready.

1. Crowd control. All guests were funneled through two mall access points, while stores typically provided one way in and one way out. Stores were able to limit the number of people at any given time. Floor decals provided information on how to line up — six feet apart, of course. Stores encouraged social distancing, too, something that Yates says most customers willingly adhered to.

2. Temperature checks and masks at security. Each mall entrance had a security guard distributing masks and offering to check temperatures. Neither was mandatory to enter the mall, though each store had the ability to make one or both mandatory. Yates says, “99 percent of the people were wearing masks. I thought it would probably be 50-50. I was really proud to see that they’re taking this seriously.”

3. Communication and signage. Nebraska Crossings was built on its app, which Yates says has more than 600,000 downloads. The app was used to communicate store-specific requirements and to convey which stores were open. The mall’s digital signage allowed it to “overcommunicate with customers and employees about best practices.” With the mall’s investments in digital technology, “we were one of the better centers equipped to lead this transformation of what this will look like.”

4. Serving as a bridge to safety. Yates believes retailers have a “huge premium” on employee safety. The mall’s role, then, is a bridge between that goal and the shoppers. “Tenants can only do so much within their four walls,” he says. “We’ve spent a fortune marketing to the public how safe we’re going to be.”

Yates put together a blueprint for reopening, detailing safety procedures, that he shared with local county health officials. “We’ve acknowledged that we live in a new world now.” He sees one aspect of that new world as a stronger partnership between tenants and landlords.

5. Sanitizing common spaces. Yates estimates at least 50 hand sanitizers have been added throughout the property. “Anywhere we have a surface you’ll be touching — a bench, an ATM, basketball hoops — we added a sanitizer.” Every table or seat includes a reminder to practice social distancing.

“We always want to make people feel comfortable. We’re always walking around with sprayer packs to constantly remind people that we’re sanitizing. Part of your budget now is going to be making sure that everything is safe and clean. It used to be taken for granted. We can’t do that anymore.”

As some stores across the country never closed, and others have gradually reopened, retailers have a lot to learn from each other, which is why NRF has convened hundreds of retailers in working groups to guide the development of Operation Open Doors. The initiative provides operational guidelines and considerations in four areas: health and safety, people and personnel, logistics and supply chain, and litigation and liability.

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