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Supermarket chain, Silicon Valley startup offer lessons for St. Pete retailers reopening their doors

Margie Manning

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Retail shops opening for the first time today in more than a month don’t have to go it alone in figuring out the best way to keep their workers and customers safe.

Both technology companies and large national chains can help smaller stores with best practices amid the Covid-19 pandemic, said Rachel Elias Wein, founder and CEO of WeinPlus, a St. Petersburg-based strategy and management consulting firm focused on retail, consumer and real estate sectors.

For Wein, the response to Covid-19 is both professional and personal. Since she founded WeinPlus in 2009, she has served as the principal strategic advisor to public and private real estate companies and national retailers with combined portfolios in excess of $25 billion. Her husband is Dr. David Wein, chief of emergency medicine at Tampa General Hospital, system medical director for TeamHealth and an associate professor at USF Morsani College of Medicine.

Rachel Elias Wein

She addressed both safety and economic concerns when she talked to the St. Pete Catalyst just before Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled the first phase of a plan to gradually reopen the Florida economy. Starting today, restaurants can offer limited on-site dining and retailers can operate at 25 percent of indoor capacity.

Safety will be top-of-mind for shoppers, Wein said.

“When I’m strolling down Central Avenue into one of the boutiques. I’d like to have some guidelines of what I can expect, what are the best practices,” she said. “Could different blocks of neighborhoods, like the EDGE District or Beach Drive, get together as a collective and say these are the things we’re going to do for our businesses as a way to give people confidence that we are providing a safe environment for them to shop. Maybe they’re going to create a co-op for extra sanitation and cleaning services, or maybe go in together to buy masks and gloves, or maybe they’re going to share some other resources. I think this is a great opportunity for businesses to band together and have greater impact working with their neighbors, or the chamber of commerce or other local organizations.”

Smaller retailers can adopt lessons learned by national chains, including The Kroger Co. (NYSE :KR), which has an online toolkit to help the retail community reopen.

“Kroger has publicly put up their blueprint for business. It’s all the best practices of what they have learned,” Wein said. “You can download videos or signage about keeping a safe distance. So if I’m a local sandwich shop, I don’t need to go through the trouble of making these signs that say please be courteous and cognizant of social distancing. You can just download them.”

One of the larger re-openings in St. Petersburg today will be Tyrone Square, which has been closed since mid-March. The mall owner, Simon Property Group, has developed a series of safety precautions, including limiting occupancy to one person per 50 square feet of space.

It’s possible to take a more nuanced approach, Wein said, citing several startups that can provide social distancing advice using technology. One example is Pathr.ai., a Silicon Valley company with a spatial intelligence platform.

“They take the floor plan of a retail facility, a grocery or a big box retailer, and they will overlay their algorithms of how people shop to indicate how many people can be in the store and maintain safe distancing, or some choke points or bottlenecks in the property that you may want to address by changing some of the fixtures or maybe widening some of the aisles,” Wein said. “Rather than a blanket statement, such as we want you to have 50 percent capacity, you can actually use data and information to provide good guidelines on an individual basis, not just across the board.”

If the stores open, even on a limited basis, will the shoppers be there?

There’s pent-up demand for products people haven’t been able to buy, along with a desire by consumers to help the local small business by ordering take-out dinners and buying gift cards, Wein said.

However, many would-be buyers have lost their jobs, been furloughed or had their hours cut, causing economic strain.

“That’s going to be a real headwind for retail sales. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Our economy is driven by consumer spending. If you don’t have economic security, if you don’t have a job or you’ve been furloughed, how confident will you be in going out and spending? That being said, if we’re not spending it’s hard for retailers to bring back their teams,” Wein said.

“I hope we have the confidence out there to spend. It will probably start slowly at first and then build up. Then we’re going to have to see what happens in the fall and the winter. I’ll be very interested to see how we open up and how we spend around the holidays. That will be a really telling sign about how long this recovery will be.”

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