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Retailers are in a deep hole as they reopen for curbside pickups only

Many are frustrated they can’t allow customers in stores while maintaining social distancing

Tanisha Gray, store manager (foreground) and owner Jennifer Hill of Blackstone's of Beacon Hill worked on preparing the store for pickups.
Tanisha Gray, store manager (foreground) and owner Jennifer Hill of Blackstone's of Beacon Hill worked on preparing the store for pickups.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Nine weeks after Governor Charlie Baker shut down all nonessential businesses in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, Massachusetts retailers will begin reopening their doors on Monday to offer curbside pickups to shoppers.

Or at least that’s the plan.

“Yeah, we’ll be rolling Steinway grands out to the curb for people to pick up,” Jerome Murphy, treasurer of the M. Steinert & Sons piano stores, joked on Friday.

While Murphy does have smaller electric keyboards that he’s more than happy to fit into a trunk, he’s one of thousands of retailers throughout the state who are returning to their registers for the first time in weeks, only to face a dramatically altered retail landscape.

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US consumer habits have shifted significantly, with e-commerce sales jumping 49 percent in April after shutdown restrictions were issued throughout the country, according to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index. Many of the biggest retailers saw the biggest gains: Walmart’s online sales jumped 74 percent, Target’s were up 114 percent, and Wayfair has seen its stock price surge 24 percent as stir-crazy shoppers eagerly update their abodes.

But the economic realities that affect retail sales are just as stark: Massachusetts’ jobless rate reached 15.1 percent in April, and since mid-March, the state has received 1.23 million claims for unemployment assistance. Major retailers like Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, and J.Crew have filed for bankruptcy protection, and there’s evidence that more will follow.

Many retailers were disappointed with Baker’s decision to allow only curbside sales to start on Monday, instead of permitting stores to open by appointment or for in-store sales with capacity restrictions in place.

“You drive by a Lowe’s or Home Depot and the parking lots are overflowing; it doesn’t seem right,” Murphy said. “The fire department has never tried to shut us down for overcrowding.”

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Jon Hurst, head of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he’s been pushing the state for weeks to allow retailers to resume in-store sales, with restrictions for safe social distancing. “I’ve gotten no answer on why retail is closed, yet churches are open — it’s totally opposite in virtually every other state in the country,” he said.

And while curbside pickups will help some stores eke out more revenue, it will be extremely limited, Hurst said.

Harold Tubman, who owns Circle Furniture, has been frustrated to watch Wayfair’s stock soar while he’s been unable to serve his customers, many of whom have been calling for help with furnishing second homes or fixing up the family room while they’re under stay-at-home advisories.

“Furniture stores are big, wide-open spaces with plenty of room for social distancing,” he said. And curbside isn’t really doable in his line of work, which focuses on custom upholstery. “We typically do special orders; we’re not selling our floor samples. With us you come in and pick the style and color you want.”

Jennifer Hill, owner of Blackstone's of Beacon Hill, worked on preparing her store for pickup sales.
Jennifer Hill, owner of Blackstone's of Beacon Hill, worked on preparing her store for pickup sales. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Other retailers are hoping to embrace curbside as a baby step toward full reopening. In March, Jennifer Hill shuttered the KitchenWares store she had run on Newbury Street, and planned to spend the next few months moving that inventory into her Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill store. When the pandemic struck, it forced the issue.

“We’ve been fortunate to have things to keep ourselves busy: moving, renovation, and merging stores,” she said. After scrambling to build out her online presence, she’s been delighted to see sales filter in.

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This week, in addition to curbside pickups, Hill will be offering a version of window shopping. Want a puzzle or a baking pan? She plans to bring things like that to the store’s big glass windows or to the threshold of the front door, which for the time being is still blocked off.

“I bought a giant bungee cord,” she said.

Other methods are being rolled out throughout the region to accommodate restricted sales.

Assembly Row in Somerville has designated parking spots for people who have purchased items for pickup.
Assembly Row in Somerville has designated parking spots for people who have purchased items for pickup.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

At Assembly Row, Federal Realty worked with the City of Somerville to create dedicated parking spaces for curbside pickups. “We want our customer to imagine ordering jeans from Levi’s, a shirt from Banana Republic, lunch from Earl’s, and top it off with a cannoli from Mike’s Pastry," said David Middleton, Assembly Row’s general manager. He said the realty group is hoping to build an app that will help coordinate pickups from several retailers at the site.

And when the Union Square Farmers Market resumed sales Saturday, customers were asked to sign a Shopper Pledge before buying. The contract, based on a model first used in Seattle, asks people to preorder and prepay vendors, restricts shoppers to one person per household, and suggests they reserve a time slot to help avoid crowds.

Reopening the market, while extremely challenging, is integral to helping boost foot traffic to the neighborhood’s retailers, who had seen a 25 to 30 percent drop in revenue because of Green Line construction before COVID-19, said Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Union Square Main Streets. “That’s the context that our district is grappling with on top of the very, very dramatic impacts of COVID. So in a sense it’s a one-two punch for us in Union Square and in many parts of Somerville.”

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Many retailers said that while they’re eager to resume in-store sales, they’re nervous about exposing themselves or their workers to the virus — and to the politics that surround it.

One Harvard Square store owner who asked for anonymity said she’s worried about having to engage her customers in difficult discussions about wearing masks, since she and her employees all fall into high-risk categories. She’s hoping that curbside operations will offer an on-ramp, of sorts, getting people accustomed to the idea that all commerce, not just that at essential stores, will need social distancing restrictions.

“The sad part is that a few people are looking for any opportunity to pick a fight,” she said. “But if the universities are still discussing whether they’re going to bother reopening in September, we’re not going to have people prancing around in our store without a mask.”

Other retailers are rewriting their playbooks as they begin to reopen.

The concept behind Kaity Cimo and Katharine ReQua’s Seaport storefront, For Now, was to make a place for people to experience small, digitally native brands in person. So the two owners hadn’t focused on having a Web store until they were forced to close their shop.

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“We knew it was something we wanted and needed to do, but physical retail has been our value proposition to brands,” Cimo said.

After the co-owners launched their site, it soon found traction online; their shoppers, after all, are digital natives. But their consumer profile changed, and they’ve been shipping goods far outside of Greater Boston. ReQua said this isn’t an entirely bad thing, given that the Seaport has largely emptied out of both residents and office workers.

“Our highest revenue months are May through August, thanks a lot to the tourists and everyone in their offices taking advantage of their lunch breaks," she said. So while they intend to offer curbside pickups, they’re not banking on it driving significant sales.

Instead, they’re planning to go the “QVC route,” as ReQua jokingly calls it, and use their store as a studio to broadcast to shoppers what they have in stock, answer questions and tell the stories behind each brand.

“Assuming it does go well, I don’t see it going away, even when the store is open and running,” Cimo said.

Other store owners forced to pivot to online sales are hoping the Web will remind shoppers they’re again open for business.

On Saturday, Tubman held a curbside sale at his Acton furniture warehouse live on Facebook, a first for the brand. And Murphy got creative during the pandemic, hiring a doctoral candidate in piano performance to record videos of himself playing in the company’s empty warehouse, as a way to let buyers at home hear each piano’s unique sound.

While many retailers struggle to sort out how they’re going to stay open with reduced capacity, ReQua said that she and Cimo were glad to be able to pivot quickly and to go where their customers are.

“This is the time to be a small-business owner — we have no red tape to cut through,” she said. “Small businesses really have an opportunity to come out of this on top.”










Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.