Stores try to stay relevant while their doors are closed

NEW YORK (AP) – Long before there was a global coronavirus pandemic, brick-and-mortar retailers struggled to get people to walk through their doors instead of shopping online.

Now those retailers are faced with an even more Herculean task: how to stay on people’s minds – and more importantly their pocketbooks – when many of their store doors are closed.

More than 250,000 stores like Macy’s, Nordstrom and Nike that sell non-essential merchandise have temporarily shuttered since mid-March in response to the pandemic.

That’s 60 per cent of overall United States (US) retail square footage, according to Managing Director of GlobalData Retail Neil Saunders.

“Retail has hung a closed sign on the door literally and metaphorically,” Saunders said. “This is the most catastrophic crisis that retail has faced – worse than the financial crisis in 2008, worse than 9/11. Almost overnight, the retail economy shifted from being about things people want to things that they need.”

A man crosses the street in front of Macy’s, in New York. PHOTO: AP

Some retailers have responded to the challenge by coming up with creative ways to stay relevant. Nike, for instance, introduced workout apps in China when the coronavirus first surfaced there, resulting in an 80 per cent increase in users within the quarter and a 30 per cent increase in online sales. It’s now pushing a similar campaign in the US and Europe.

Yoga pants maker Lululemon is holding online classes in North America and Europe after gaining thousands of new followers in China on WeChat. Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald told analysts during a recent call that during its first week of closures in the US, it saw nearly 170,000 customers join Lululemon for its live classes.

Small businesses are also pivoting to hold onto customers. Camp, a new toy chain that set itself apart from online retailers by doubling down on the physical experience, is hosting virtual birthday parties and creating curated gift boxes now that its five stores have gone dark.

Politics & Prose, a popular Washington DC bookstore, was also forced to temporarily close and is now starting to stream author talks online and offering a curbside pickup service.

“Many bookstores are known as havens for comfort and reassurance in difficult times,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of the bookstore. “But a pandemic is not like other crises. In a medical crisis like this, the idea of bringing people together becomes an anathema.”

Even discounters and wholesale clubs like Walmart and Costco that remain open so customers can still buy essential items like groceries and toilet paper have had to shift their offerings to focus on household goods while ignoring the racks of trendy clothing elsewhere in their stores.