Local retailers are looking to convince shoppers to return during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they face a tough task ahead. Despite being at wits-end after being cooped up for two months, people won’t easily cotton to the idea of spending any time soon, as fears about the virus are now being outweighed by concerns over the economy.

Many of the nation’s leading experts are predicting the U.S. economy to look a lot like a Nike Swoosh during the recovery phase. That is, having a long, slow climb following the downturn we’re currently experiencing at the hands of COVID-19.

Said Mark Schneider, CEO of Nestle, the recovery will not be quick, resulting in a “several-quarter, if not several-year kind of process.” (The quotes were taken from a recent Wall Street Journal article: “Why the Economic Recovery Will Be More of a ‘Swoosh’ Than V-Shaped.”)

As a small business consultant whose expertise is in helping independent retailers be successful, my time and attention during the COVID-19 shutdown have been spent helping local operators find their footing. It’s not an easy task, what with the plethora of conflicting medical information, government regulations, and cautious consumers to consider.

Small business owners must be strategic to convince shoppers to return during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many government officials have stepped up to support local businesses, primarily through temporarily lessening restrictions and priming people to get out and spend money, my focus has been elsewhere.

I’ve focused on educating and lending an ear to small business owners, reasoning that consumer confidence/customer sentiment will be dragged down by the weight of bad news for the near term, owing to the shutdown and the nation’s slow reopening.

My approach has been to ask “How can I help businesses weather the tumult while consumers are unwilling to spend money?”

That’s taken the shape of me engaging with business owners daily to share tips, tactics, and strategies for getting people, who are comfortable getting out, to visit their businesses and spend money.

A common narrative bandied about online is “Local governments, chambers of commerce and concerned civic leaders must assuage residents’ angst such that they feel comfortable shopping and spending again.”

This reasoning is illogical.

When consumer confidence and consumer sentiment are both low, getting people who aren’t inclined to shop and spend to do so is darn near impossible. After all, their sentiment and confidence are low precisely because they don’t have great faith in the feasubility to spend in the near term.

This is about survival, not COVID-19.

Therefore, small business owners’ energy is much better spent focusing on folks who, regardless of their outlook, are ready to get out of the house and spend money.

I’ve learned that those folks most eager to venture out are mainly concerned about one thing: Safety generally and the wearing of masks specifically.

These folks fall into one of two groups:

  • Those who refuse to wear a mask, and
  • Those who want everyone to wear masks.

As a small business owner, it behooves you to make the decision that’s in the best interest of your business. That is, if you know most of your customers and would-be customers would prefer that everyone wear masks, the decision is simple. Likewise, if you feel asking everyone to wear masks would scare off more folks than made comfortable about visiting your outfit, stand firm on that decision.

No matter what side you come down on, communicate it upfront.

Make customers’ safety a priority if you hope to convince shoppers to return.

In the end, visitors simply want to have a no-hassle but safe shopping experience.

A simple but effective strategy is to make clear to would-be customers how you’re actively investing in their safety. For example, one apparel retailer I spoke to is communicating via social media to make customers aware of his stores’ new health protocols:

  • The staff is required to wear masks and gloves (masks are also available for patrons).
  • Hand sanitizer is placed at all checkouts.
  • Articles of clothing that have been tried on are, at a minimum, removed from the floor for 24 hours. (Items may also be steam cleaned before returning to the floor.)
  • Jewelry handled by staff or customers is cleaned before returning to the display.
  • Purchased items are cleaned and placed in a protective pouch before the customer leaves the store.

Taking these steps not only creates awareness for customers that the brand is taking their safety seriously; it helps to make people aware that the store is appreciating the new reality of retail.

“I feel like we’ll all adapt,” said Michael Malouf, owner of Malouf’s, a fine apparel store with locations in Southlake, Texas, and Lubbock, Texas. “My optimism is rooted in [feeling] that we’ll change the way we do things, and we’ll all get through it.”

While I am less than optimistic that small business owners will see an uptick in business soon, I remain confident that those small business owners who are willing to be strategic will come out of this stronger on the other side.