How should retailers manage touch-but-not-buy?

Photo: RetailWire
May 12, 2020

The ability to have customers return merchandise, try on clothes in fitting rooms and even touch merchandise has been clouded by concerns over the transmission of COVID-19.

Among the strategies some retailers are using as they start to reopen:

  • Gap’s dressing rooms will be closed. Returns will be quarantined for 24 hours before being placed back on sales racks.
  • Saks Fifth Avenue will keep dressing rooms open, but fewer will be available and they’ll be cleaned after each use. Items tried on or returned are being taken off the sales floor for 48 hours.
  • Target has closed fitting rooms. Returned clothing items are being quarantined for three days before placing them back on the sales floor.
  • Macy’s will also open fewer dressing rooms with frequent sanitization and will hold aside returned and fitting room merchandise for 24 hours before bringing it back to the sales floor.
  • At DSW, any shoe returns or shoes that have been tried on will be removed from the sales floor to the back where they will be sprayed with disinfectant and kept off the sales floor for three days.

Beyond apparel and footwear, Macy’s beauty departments will offer “no-touch” consultations and demonstrations and will help customers test products on a piece of paper with a diagram of a face. Customers will be required to use hand sanitizer when trying on jewelry.

A challenge, according to Glossy, is that few guidelines have come out from authorities on how product should be handled. Saks is investigating whether to use experts to advise them on how or if apparel needs to be cleaned after it is tried on by a customer, according to the New York Post.

Retailers could face lawsuits from sick patrons and workers after reopening, although health officials have said it’s highly unlikely a person can get COVID-19 through apparel or footwear. The sanitization, mask for associates and other steps are also designed to make customers feel comfortable enough to shop in public. Saks plans to take the temperatures of associates daily and potentially communicate those results to shoppers.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How should retailers manage returns, fitting rooms and other product-related contamination risks? What are the most important measures retailers should be embracing to assure customers that stores are safe to shop?

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15 Comments on "How should retailers manage touch-but-not-buy?"

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Mark Ryski

We’re going to see a lot of different policies and a lot of confusion around how they get implemented. The guidelines for handling merchandise are vague and will likely continue to change. Any way you slice it, shopping in brick-and-mortar stores just became a whole lot more challenging – and at a time when retailers can least afford it to be. First and foremost retailers need to ensure staff and shoppers are safe. Clearly posted policies, and PPE for all staff and offered to all shoppers is a good place to start. This is all going to be a mess for a little while and shoppers will need to be patient.

Cathy Hotka

Reducing the number of fitting rooms or closing them altogether are the only routes right now. Everything about a fitting room — doors, walls, hangers, clothing items — would have to be cleaned on a regular basis, and that may not be realistic right now. The new normal won’t be the old normal, until there’s a vaccine, which could be many years from now.

Jeff Sward

I’ll feel a lot better in a store where masks are required, and are actually worn by employees and shoppers alike. I saw a picture of an AEO store opening where it looked like hand sanitizer and masks were available at the front entrance. A quick spritz for shoppers would add another level of comfort for all. I also hope to see some re-thought product presentations where the floor presentations are lightened up and more of the depth is kept in the stock room. Easier said than done, but this just isn’t a “stack ’em high” environment any longer.

Ken Morris

I think the three day rule should apply for returns and fitting rooms should be closed. I would also consider gloves if you’re touching merchandise and masks. America is the center of the universe for COVID-19 and we should start acting like it. This won’t go away by the summer, the vaccine isn’t going to be available in the fall and we should be prepared for the long haul.

Neil Saunders

In the short term there is going to be a lot of disruption, but retailers need to find ways of preserving customer service while protecting their staff and members of the public. Not allowing returns is not sustainable, especially in apparel and especially if people are not allowed to try garments on in stores. As such, it looks like a more complex process of returns will be needed including quarantining items. This is really going to add to the erosion of margins that returns bring about.

It’s not just apparel: the biggest challenge is in the produce department and grocers. We are all so used to feeling fruit and vegetables for ripeness and it is a very hard habit to break.

Bob Amster

Fitting rooms can be kept safe if — and if, and if. This means gloves and masks worn by customers and associates, sanitizing the dressing rooms and spacing out customer access. Magic mirrors wouldn’t hurt but one cannot turn those on overnight. These measures are not going to enhance the customer experience, a phrase used furiously until the pandemic struck, and almost no in-store purchase or return will be “frictionless.”

Suresh Chaganti

Clothing and apparel retailers are indeed in a tough spot. Going Costco’s way – no trial rooms/no tryouts — is probably the way to go. But it comes with increased returns. The returns are indeed the sticking point. Even for e-commerce retailers, it is mandatory to implement the protocols to sanitize returns before stocking them back.

Implementing the sanitizing processes to handle returns and training the associates will be a smart investment. Customers do care dearly about the safety and brands have an opportunity to show the difference.

Georganne Bender

The most important move a retailer can make right now is researching state and local pandemic guidelines and following them to the letter. We are also recommending that clients keep up with what large retailers are doing when there are no guidelines and that they adopt them for their stores as well.

I think most people understand that shopping is not going to be as convenient as it once was and likely will not be for a while. It will be difficult for shoppers and hard on retailers who must learn to juggle good customer service with sanitary issues necessary to keep both shoppers and store associates safe. Communication is key. You can’t hang a sign on the front door and forget about it. Pandemic precautions change quickly and customers are counting on retailers to keep up.

Shep Hyken

The strategies listed in this article are in line with what needs to be done. There isn’t a “standard” set yet, but there should be. Letting customers know what the safety/health policy is for shopping, returns, etc. is important to building trust with the customer.

Gregory Osborne

Retailers’ responses fit into two categories: PR and science. Initiatives like disinfecting returned items and then sanitizing them again present a belt-and-suspenders approach — doing both is unsupported by science but probably helpful PR. At the very least though, all retailers should quarantine returned items for the time necessary to eliminate infection.

Mary Henslee
2 years 6 months ago

National guidelines for displaying, touching, trying-on and returning apparel need to be developed based on science, and broadly communicated and followed. All employees and customers should wear masks, and either gloves or hand sanitizer should be provided at the store entrances. Reducing the risk of infection flare ups and making customers feel safe enough to shop, while providing them access to goods, will go together.

Marge Laney
2 years 6 months ago
Customers won’t decide to buy until they have tried on an article of clothing, either at home or in the store’s fitting room. This is a problem right now both for online and brick and mortar stores. According to an article yesterday published by CNBC: “Sixty-five percent of women said they will not feel safe trying on clothes in dressing rooms, due to the Covid-19 crisis, according to a survey by retail predictive analytics company First Insight. The firm fielded 1,066 responses from consumers on April 30. Meantime, 54% of men will not feel safe using dressing rooms, the survey found. Sixty-six percent of women, and 54% of men, said they will not feel comfortable working with sales associates in retail stores.” So what is a retailer to do? Closing fitting rooms will generate huge returns and the newest styles and the most popular sizes will go out the door only to be returned weeks later and will require sanitization in addition to all the other labor intense activities to get them back on the… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

I think a strong case can be made that this is “fear over science,” but perception is ultimately more important, and the concerns of even a significant minority need to be addressed (irrational though they may be).

The nature of the price point determines which strategy to use as it reflects the type of service that can be offered. Saks is upscale, and customers logically expect both room options and frequent attention to them. Macy’s and Target offer lower levels of service and that’s logically reflected in the policies.

Only DSW’s “spray with disinfectant” idea gives me pause: wouldn’t that damage the merchandise? At the very least, I’d stay away from something that smelled like sanitizer.

Ralph Jacobson

There is still way too much conflicting information on COVID-19, let alone other contagions, like the common flu, for instance. How long does the virus survive in the air? Are there any confirmed cases of contraction via fabric or hard surfaces? Can you catch the common flu by trying on a shirt someone tried on a few minutes ago? You could probably find different answers to these and other questions all over the Web.

Until we determine what the real risks are, we must play it safe with the suggestions in the article and comments.

Mike Osorio

Apparel retailers will need to reopen as state and local government proclamations dictate. They must provide staff and customers with a reasonably safe shopping environment which will include masks, gloves and hand sanitizer for staff, and clear guidance on handling returns and try-ons (whether in a fitting room or on the sales floor). Steaming is the generally agreed-upon tactic for sanitation of apparel, and leaving returns untouched for at least 24 hours will allow product to be returned to the floor (after steaming). Cleaning POS surfaces between transactions, offering contactless payment options, and ensuring 6 foot distance between customers in line, will all help.

However … the real pain point for reopening retailers is the potential for lawsuits from people claiming infection from being in the store — whether legitimate of not. The next round of federal assistance must include reasonable liability protections for retailers and others who open during a pandemic which is not close to being under control.

"Pandemic precautions change quickly and customers are counting on retailers to keep up."

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