Retailers’ cooperation during NRF’s Operation Open Doors shows ‘we are truly all of us in this together’

Operation Open Doors

Resources, tools and templates for safely reopening retail, developed with input from hundreds of retailers. View resources.

On a conference call held late last month as part of NRF’s Operation Open Doors initiative, Macy’s Senior Counsel for Retail Operations Christine Brandt described in detail some of the steps the department store chain had taken to protect customers as its locations began to reopen from the COVID-19 shutdown. “High-touch” services such as ear piercings, beauty consultations, bra fittings and customers trying on watches, bracelets or necklaces were all being suspended or modified to allow for less personal contact and greater distance between customers and store colleagues.

On the same call, Starbucks Vice President for Global Public Policy Zulima Espinel passed along key steps the coffeehouse chain had learned from its locations in China, which had been among the first to close during the coronavirus pandemic: mitigate and contain, monitor and adapt, restore and build resilience. And in all questions of can, how or should a store reopen, “should is the most important,” she said.

On dozens of other calls, officials from retail companies across the country have freely shared advice on how to safely reopen stores closed by the pandemic and how to navigate regulations and restrictions put in place by governors, county executives and mayors. Others have joined calls to seek advice, often asking complex questions with multiple what-ifs. Whether to take employees’ temperature quickly became a question of at home or at the store, whether workers should be paid for the time, what do to if they had a fever and how to get enough thermometers. And retail general counsels debated how to address conflicting laws and regulations that might, for example, get retailers sued for requiring customers to wear face masks but also sued for not doing so. As one attorney asked, “Which lawsuit do you want?”

Retail is one of the economy’s most competitive industries, and executives are usually loathe to share any but the broadest strokes of how they operate. But this was different.

“I hadn’t seen that kind of information sharing among ‘competitors’ ever,” said Kevin Woolf, a partner at the law firm Seyfarth Shaw who helped NRF create key components of Operation Open Doors and who has run many of its almost-daily working group calls. “But I think they were doing it out of the sense that we are truly all of us in this together: ‘If there’s something we’ve done and you can benefit from and vice versa, then we ought to be talking.’ They really seemed to drop the façade of competitiveness and got into this together, realizing this was a bigger issue than any one brand’s success or failure.”

"They really seemed to drop the façade of competitiveness and got into this together, realizing this was a bigger issue than any one brand’s success or failure."

Kevin Woolf, Seyfarth Shaw

Brandt said Macy’s was willing to share information about what it was doing with other retailers because “they shared so much of theirs.”

“The essential retailers who stayed open (while Macy’s stores were closed) freely shared what they had learned. We thought if there was anything Macy’s could do to help other retailers who were in the same position as us to deal with this, then we should,” she said. “We want retail to come out of this together. It doesn’t help Macy’s if other retailers disappear. We’re rooting for retail in general.”

Developed with input from hundreds of retailers and launched by NRF in April, Operation Open Doors provides operational guidelines and considerations in four areas: health and safety, people and personnel, logistics and supply chain, and litigation and liability. An online resource center includes an interactive map of coronavirus rules, regulations, stay-at-home orders and other information from all 50 states down to the city and county levels including the status of stay-at-home orders. A federal agency and state tracker offers information on loan forbearance and lease enforcement, and a 10-page checklist addresses issues from appointing a “return-to-work” team to how to sanitize cash registers and restrooms.

NRF Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel Stephanie Martz, who has headed the project, said the concept evolved as “we were all working from home and watching the entire economy crater” after stay-at-home orders begin closing most retailers and other businesses beginning in mid-March.

“It became clear that our members badly needed to be able to talk to each other and figure out best practices,” she said. “If there was ever a highest and best use for a trade association, it’s during a crisis like this.”

Robert Molloy, chief administrative officer, general counsel and secretary of Destination XL Group, parent company of the 321-store DXL Big and Tall men’s clothing chain, agreed on the need.

“I was sitting here with no staff and thinking how am I going to figure this out,” he recalled. “I don’t know where I would have turned without that. I would have been frozen in place.”

Speaking last week just before the anniversary of D-Day, Molloy compared Operation Open Doors with a major military operation.

“NRF decided the size of this needed to be addressed in that manner, and that’s how you guys did it,” he said. “I can’t tell you what an incredible thing it is for a small retailer to be able to get this kind of help and resources. It was just unbelievable.”

Molloy said he learned from the very first conference call held by the OOD logistics working group that some states were allowing closed stores to be used as fulfillment centers for online orders. He was able to immediately partially reopen some locations to do so, and that “allowed us to stay in business” at a time when there was no other source of revenue. Destination XL’s online sales jumped 30 percent in the first month as a result, and were up 70 percent year-over-year as of last week, he said.

NRF’s interactive map of coronavirus regulations, developed by a special team of lawyers with advanced IT skills at Seyfarth, was essential because it gave detailed information down to the city level on what stores could be opened and with what requirements for personal protective equipment, social distancing and other details, Molloy said. By following constantly updated information from the map, Destination XL was able to reopen 201 stores as of last week.

Retail Association of Maine President and CEO Curtis Picard gave credit to retailers that have been allowed to remain open during the pandemic for sharing what they have learned through Operation Open Doors.

“The benefit we all had was that we had a certain segment of retail – the ‘essential’ retailers that had been open throughout this that were for better or worse the guinea pigs – and we were able to learn from them,” he said.

Picard said Operation Open Doors played a significant role as his association developed a state-level plan for Maine retailers to reopen and worked with state officials on regulations.

“There was no game plan for any of this,” he said. “It was helpful to have something that looks at it from a national perspective and then can be adapted for any particular state or region because there are differences between states and geographies. This is a template that speaks for the entire industry.”

While mostly large and medium-size retailers have participated in the working group calls, the resources developed have been widely distributed to retailers of all sizes and have been particularly valuable to small store owners. Pam Riordan, owner of Smoke Stack Hobby Shop in Lancaster, Ohio, said the OOD checklist of issues to be considered is so important “I carry it with me everywhere” while Pamela Katrancha from Garden Gazebo garden supply shop in Virginia Beach, Va., said NRF has provided “phenomenal information that has been very helpful to me.” At Stephenson’s of Elkhart, a clothing store in Indiana, owner Danny Reynolds called the resources “like having a roadmap.”  

With close to 100 retailers each on dozens of working group calls and more than 55,000 views on the NRF coronavirus resources web page, Martz said the project has been a success in terms of engagement. Keeping up with constantly changing executive orders from governors, evolving safety recommendations from public health agencies and other daily developments – all while balancing accuracy against retailers’ immediate need for information – has been the biggest difficulty.

“It’s been a horrible crisis not just for retailers but obviously for the entire country,” she said. “I hope we rose to the challenge.”

As more stores reopen, Mart said, retailers are pivoting from reopening strategies to how to operate safely on an ongoing basis without a need to close again, particularly if another wave of coronavirus should return in the fall. “The short answer is, we think we know how to do it now.”

 

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