Different look

Photos by Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Retail sales look a little different now at Hubert’s in Peterborough. At Hubert’s, Karen MacFarlane helps a customer check out from behind a plexiglass window. Below, signs direct customers to wear masks and use hand sanitizer.

There’s a sign as you approach the door at Hubert’s Family Outfitters in Peterborough that reads: “Face Mask Required Inside the Store.”

The policy is the same at Twin Elm Farm on Route 101 in Peterborough, while Bill Littles, owner of Steele’s Stationers, said the Peterborough store is politely asking customers to wear a mask once entering the store.

It’s part of the new reality for retail shopping, as stores tasked with creating a plan for reopening once it was allowed on May 11 had to figure out a way to resume operations, while doing their part to keep both customers and employees as safe as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As retail operations opened up after almost two months of either limited business through curbside pickup or being shuttered since the middle of March, it came with both relief and uncertainty. The fact that business would resume in some normal capacity brought a light at the end of the tunnel, while the extra efforts to clean and sanitize, along with whether people would feel comfortable returning to retail operations made for some anxious moments.

New protocols in place

For the most part, customers have been understanding of the guidelines that require face protection, but like with anything there are others that feel it should be a choice rather than a mandate.

“I’d say 99 percent of the folks have been accepting of it,” said Cheryl Fogg, store manager of Hubert’s. “But we’ve had a few that said no thanks, we’ll shop somewhere else.” Hubert’s also has a hand sanitizing station as people walk in and are limiting the number of people that can be in the clothing store, which equates to about 16 customers.

She said the staff is required to wear masks and have upped their standards for cleaning. The fitting rooms are open, but customers are only allowed five items at a time and those items not purchased are taken off the racks for 48 hours. They have put a stop to returns until after the stay-at-home orders are lifted, Fogg said.

“There are people who don’t touch anything unless they physically want to see it,” Fogg said.

After someone exits the fitting rooms, everything is wiped down.

“We’re doing every single thing we possibly can, the best we can,” Fogg said. “It’s obviously much more labor intensive for us.”

Louise York, owner of Twin Elm Farm, an antique shop in Peterborough, said she waited to reopen until May 21 because she wasn’t quite ready.

“I definitely had reservations,” York said. “I didn’t want to open the first week we could have. I was trying to figure it all out.”

That meant coming up with a policy for face masks, putting hand sanitizing stations when people come in and leave and instituting one-way traffic throughout the store.

“I’m trying to think of every little thing,” York said. “And I just feel like we put everything in place that we could.”

York said she is requiring customers to wear face masks because both her and her husband, Barry York, owner of Brady’s American Grill, are small business owners with young children in their home.

“We can’t get this,” York said. “If I got sick I will have to close my business ...”

Littles said that requiring face masks just seemed like a necessary step and was able to secure face masks from the state for both employees and those that don’t have one who wish to come into the store.

“I really think we’ve done it pretty well,” he said.

Return to business

Littles said that they quietly opened on May 13 “because we were still tentative about things.”

He said they’ve been able to pay the bills and are ordering only the basics “just to get by.” The last couple weeks have been busier.

“Definitely more people have come out,” he said. “There’s been an increase.”

Fogg said “honestly its been exciting to see the number of people coming out.” Hubert’s annual tent sale on Memorial Day weekend was a big success.

“It’s just very different,” she said. “But people want to come in and appreciate that we’re open.”

Hubert’s has limited its hours, closing two hours earlier during the week than they did before the pandemic.

To begin, York decided to open Thursday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., instead of being open seven days a week like she was before. After a good start to resuming operations, York opted to open for Memorial Day.

“Memorial Day has always been a good day for us so at the last minute I decided to open up,” she said. It was a good choice, as York said she was busy all day and people were buying things. As time goes on, York said she’d look into adding more days.

The shutdown

York was selling items on Facebook and it was going well — although only at a fraction of the rate when open prior to the stay at home orders.

“I was in every single day and wait for the phone to ring,” York said. “It was a ton of work, but I knew if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t survive.”

Fogg said they offered curbside pickup the couple weeks prior to reopening on May 11 and it worked out well. But getting back to business was necessary.

Littles said they were doing curbside pickup and continue to do so if people are not ready to come back into the store.

“It’s not going to be normal for a while,” he said.

But doing curbside was less than a quarter of what they would normally do for business and “it took forever.”

“It was a lot of work to get everything ready,” he said.

Littles said he was able to secure funds through the Payroll Protection Program and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, but is being cautious about using them.

What lies ahead

Like a lot of small business owners who have survived this far, York is worried about what another potential spike in coronavirus cases could mean.

“I don’t know what would happen if the numbers skyrocketed and we had to close again. It would be devastating,” she said.

She’s anxious to see what the number of cases look like as more and more businesses reopen.

So far, Littles said, business has been good, but still sees 2020 as a year that will likely be forgotten.

“I see this year being a write off and for a lot of people,” he said. “My projections for the year is probably 30 percent or more below what I did last year.”

And he isn’t quite sure what the future holds for small businesses like his.

“The state of retail, I don’t think this is going to change for a while,” Littles said.

This article is being shared by The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.