Ashley Morris

Jul 12, 2020

8 min read

One Building — Many Approaches: Shopping Malls in the Reopening Phase of COVID-19

One of my favorite parts of being an emergency manager is the fact that we are often aware of the ongoing emergencies and disasters while a majority of the public either is not aware or has a different perception of what is going on. During incidents such as Hurricane Harvey, I would try to listen to what my family, friends, or the general public would say about the incident in order to gain knowledge about what they knew, what they didn’t know, and what messages were being misconstrued.

COVID-19 has changed the game with this! All of us are walking around a long-term, ongoing incident that affects us and our community on a personal level. That being said, I feel like I am constantly in the middle of a social project. When I go to the store or run errands, I am always listening to pick up cues and learn about how the public is speaking and understanding the incident. While this may seem exhausting, I absolutely love it! I was recently able to conduct the ultimate social experiment this past weekend by taking note of what a reopened mall looked like during an ongoing pandemic.

The jurisdiction that I live in went to Stage 3 of reopening about a month ago, with the mall opening up a few weeks prior. Lucky for us here in Maryland, we have had a cloth mask requirement for all indoor places since early April so it has been common practice for everyone. While donning my cloth mask, I entered the mall and was able to keep a large distance from just about everyone while keeping my small bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready. The mall was probably 50% busy or less, and it definitely did not look the same as it did during early 2020. Here are some observations in messaging, PPE requirements, and store operations:

The Overall Mall Building

A photo of a sticker that reads “shop with space” that lined the escalator in the mall.

The overall building, which includes the entryways, corridors between stores, and the food court had quite a bit of changes applied to it. First, there was no shortage of signage regarding the pandemic. Reminders to follow the safety messages that we have been echoing for nearly four months (hands clean, distancing, and masks) was a constant sight. They had signage up on the outer doors as you entered the mall, as well as hanging in high traffic areas. Some were posted with sign holders in these areas. They also had large banners posted higher up in the building, as well as floor stickers that reminded people to distance. They also included messaging on all the ways the mall was keeping shoppers safe as a way to ease anxious minds, such as the option to pick-up items curb-side. The signage was all well designed and had matching colors much like a campaign we would design for public information. The message included tones of protection, safety, care, but also triumph or strength. Much of the messaging had a message of finally being back, missing the customer, and change. This concept will be touched on more when discussing the individual store messaging and campaigns.

Besides the signage, the building layout was changed and sanitation supplies were added. The mall shut down the child playground, but the carousel was still up and running. Common sitting benches and areas were also open, including in the food court. However, the spacing between each table was vastly changed with signage noting that half of the tables have been removed to promote distancing. In the food court area, each restaurant (the ones that were open) had stickers on the ground for lines to form with space. There was hand sanitizer stations in the food court area, but also spread out up and down the corridors. There was also a station next to the carousel I mentioned, which made me chuckle a little as I wondered if that was the provision that made them decide it would be okay to open. Lastly, they did try to make foot traffic flow one way or the other depending on what side of the corridor you were on. While most obliged, some people did not — either out of habit or the decision not to.

The Individual Stores

Messaging and Signage

This was the part I found the most fascinating. Each store had its own signage, process, operations, and hours. Despite the mall being opened for a few weeks, not all stores were physically opened. Some had paper signs posted with an opening date to come later in July. Other stores were black with no projection date posted on the closed doors. A few examples of closed up stores included Lucky Jeans, Victoria Secret, Godiva Chocolates, and a few others. For the stores who did decide to open, it would appear that stores were able to choose what operating hours they wished to open. Each store had a paper sign up with their days of operations and COVID-19 hours. Some varied, but many are opting to close around 6 PM each night. Lush Cosmetics, for example, decided to actually close Sunday and Monday completely. It would be interesting to know what reasons drove the hours of operations.

On the outside of each store was an individual store driven messaging campaign. Many of the stores had common themes. The first was the concept of finally being back and being strong from the challenge of the trying times. Windows showed messages of “We’re back and happy to see you” and “We’re all together again.’ However, these messages did not come from a place of being excited to be back to create profit or as a way of messaging that the pandemic was over. An important second message that typically followed the first was the concept that customer and employee safety trumps all else. Messages often included concepts of “Our stores and rules are different, but we are still us” and “Things may look different around here, but we are the same brand.” Lastly, stores pumped a message of reunification and missing the customer. “We are so glad to see you again” and “We can’t wait to have you back” was a big one as well. All stores had messaging taped on the front of there store for people to see on their way inside, and some had some posted on the inside as well.

Store Design

Most stores appeared to have the same standards as the general mall did: more spacing between racks, a designated in and our door, a flow to the store to promote one way traffic, and plastic sheet guards between cashier and customer for protection. Some stores did not seem like they changed much while others seemed to have a larger transformation. Most stores also had the social distancing stickers at check-out. Lastly, some stores closed their dressing room and created a longer and flexible return policy for purchases.

PPE Requirements and Provision

As I mentioned previously, Maryland has had a face covering rule in place for a few months already. That being said, all stores had signage stating that masks were required for entry. Some also said they must remain on while in the store. A small amount of stores (American Eagle, Nordstrom Rack, and Forever 21) actually had basic surgical masks available for use if someone did not have a mask. I found this very interesting because it allows for the store to not lose any customers despite the safety requirement. This could be well received with customers. It adds a level of care to the appearance of the business.

On top of that, some stores actually had hand sanitizer, gloves, wipes, and other supplies available outside the front of the store or just inside the store. Nordstrom Rack had an entire table set-up with signage and a staff member to assist with any concerns or needs. American Eagle had a cute little set-up with supplies and signage. It really did make it seem that these individual stores are going above and beyond for the safety of the customer.

A photo of a rack located outside of the American Eagle store that included signage, masks, PPE, and stickers for customers.

Capacity Counts

Several stores had capacity counts based on store size. These counts were all different, but all stores had the number posted on the outside. Stores had different ways of handling this. Some stores had someone posted at the entrance with a tablet to count. Once capacity was met, he or she would stop and form a line (socially distanced with stickers of course) outside the store. Others had a small enough number to be able to keep an eye and close the door when capacity was met. Some stores had a sign that said “Sorry, our store is at capacity” until they released some customers. The number totals ranged from 4 people up to 20 or 30. Store size was the driver, but it would also be interesting to know exactly how this was calculated as well.

Accepted Payment

This is another variable that depended on individual store, but some stores had posted that cash was not to be used to limit touching the same items. Many stores had the typical self-serve keypad where customers used their own card and no exchange of items was needed. Receipts were by default tossed in the bag and the employee would place the bag on the counter rather than trying to hand it to the customer.

Wrap Up

All in all, the mall did not seem to be a place of normalcy despite being allowed to reopen. There was messaging everywhere and the way you did things as a mall visitor was changed. However, the interest may lie in the individual decisions of each store. Did they base their decisions off of professional guidance? Were some of these rules in the released private sector guidance standards for reopening? Were there any decisions made that cost the store unnecessary money that did not add safety? Is there a way we can help individual stores like this know what to do and not do to set them up for success? Are there ways to ensure each individual store is protecting the customer evenly? These are all great questions that we should ask and study in the AAR process. Knowing these answers could allow us to provide better information to our private sector for future disasters — including another pandemic. *Knock on wood.*