When the Massachusetts economy shifted into second gear this week, the drill was a familiar one at the Bob’s Discount Furniture chain, which for the past month has been reopening stores state by state.
While some retailers may be slowly welcoming back customers ― or even holding off for now ― the doors at all 11 Bob’s locations in Massachusetts swung open Monday, allowing people to once again to sit on a sofa or lie on a mattress. Over the next two weeks, Bob’s expects its entire 128-store chain across 20 states to open, with New York City and New Jersey locations being among the last to return.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the reopening effort has been the number of people who are ready to return to stores — not only to shop, but to actually buy.
“It has been pretty terrific pretty much across the board,” said Bob’s chief executive, Mike Skirvin. “What we don’t know is how long that will last . . . There is certainly pent-up demand.”
Skirvin knows it’s premature to say whether consumers’ spending will return to pre-pandemic levels with the unemployment rate in the double digits and the economy mired in recession. There will be some amount of shopping, but Skirvin doesn’t know quite what to expect, given the unprecedented times. Customers who are out and about in the first wave could also be a self-selected group: They’re not browsers; they need to buy stuff, whether it’s a bed or a bureau, or maybe a desk for a work-from-home setup.
For Bob’s, the reopenings have been an exercise in making sure customers and employees feel safe.
The moment a customer steps into a Bob’s it’s hard not to notice how much shopping has changed because of the pandemic. Stationed at the entrance is a masked employee in a newly created role of greeter, armed with an infrared thermometer and questions.
“Can I put some sanitizer on your hands?”
“Can I take your temperature?”
“How are you feeling today?”
“Have you been around anyone sick today?”
If a customer isn’t wearing a mask, Bob’s will provide one.
At the Nashua, N.H., store June 2, there was another unusual sight: a line outside the spacious furniture store, as if it were a sales-tax holiday.
A place like Bob’s should be one of the easiest places to social distance, but executives made a decision early on to sharply restrict the total number of people in stores — a policy that often goes beyond local regulations.
Across the chain, Bob’s is reopening by allowing only 10 customer parties at a time in each store. At the Nashua store, for example, the fire code allows 766 people at a time, but under New Hampshire’s reopening regulations, capacity is restricted to 50 percent. Bob’s, however, is letting in only about 70 customers at a time at this location, a fraction of what the state allows.
In Massachusetts, retailers like Bob’s are limited to 40 percent capacity; still, the chain’s policy remains more restrictive.
“There are a lot of rules out there, and they continue to change,” said Roger Dunlap, senior vice president of store operations. “We established Bob’s rules.”
Among other rules are the chain’s new “ABCs.” Instead of “Always be closing,” employees are told to be “Always be cleaning.”
Before each reopening, the store is deep-cleaned. Employees are also cleaning throughout the day, wiping surfaces touched by customers.
Bob’s has stopped giving out free coffee and food (meaning no cookies or candy) because many states are prohibiting communal eating in order to control the virus.
Yes, customers can still plunk down on a sofa, test out a recliner, or rest on a mattress. Bob’s is giving shoppers the option of using a disposable paper liner before they lie on a bed — similar to what you might see in a doctor’s office.
“People are touching things less,” observed Chuck James, Bob’s zone president who oversees New England. “But if they are going to buy a sofa, they will sit on it.”
At the Nashua store, just over the Massachusetts border, Auntaya and Edgar Rosario of Lowell were looking for a mattress. With masks on, they tested out the Twilight Bob-o-pedic. Another Massachusetts couple, Jim and Faith Mickel of Shirley, brought their own tape measure to size up a sofa.
The Mickels mirror a trend among Bob’s post-shutdown shoppers: They’ve been eager to upgrade their living rooms, scooping up sofas, sectionals, and recliners.
Faith Mickel said she felt comfortable shopping, calling Bob’s virus-prevention procedures thorough.
For those who aren’t comfortable shopping during regular hours, customers can now come in by appointment, either before a store opens or after it closes.
Bob’s shuttered its first stores on March 21, when Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered nonessential businesses closed.
Looking back, Bob’s CEO Skirvin said, “The psychological closing of the stores — and not knowing when they would reopen — that was difficult."
Even without a reopening date on the horizon, there was still a lot of work to be done. Or as Dunlap, Bob’s store operations executive, put it, the chain still had to “maintain the engine.”
Bob’s furloughed many of its 5,700 employees but kept some store managers and supply chain staff on the payroll. Distribution centers never closed, and deliveries to online shoppers continued. Bob’s also introduced a new option for customers wary about having delivery people in their homes: no-contact drop-offs of furniture outside your house.
The chain figured that any new virus regulation would be likely to involve masks, wipes, and sanitizer, so it needed to buy those products right away. Bob’s — known for its cheeky commercials — is headquartered in Manchester, Conn., and majority-owned by the Boston private equity firm Bain Capital.
Throughout the shutdown, managers remained in weekly contact with furloughed employees. As reopening dates became known and neared, managers gauged whether employees wanted to return to work. Since Bob’s is operating with reduced capacity and hours, the chain wouldn’t need everyone back right away.
The first store reopened May 5 in St. Peters, Mo., followed a few days later by one in Warwick, R.I., and two in Nevada.
Last week, managers in Massachusetts began calling employees to determine whether they were ready to return as soon as Monday, when more retailers could open their doors. Training on the new COVID-19 procedures took place Monday morning before stores opened at 11 a.m. In addition to wearing masks, employees have their temperatures checked before they begin their shifts.
Chain-wide, about half of the furloughed employees have returned.
Most workers, said James, the zone president, were eager to get back.
“People are excited,” James said. “It’s the sense of normalcy."
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.