Open. Close. Stay closed. Re-open. Deciding what to do in relation to opening or reopening a brick-and-mortar record store during the COVID-19 pandemic feels a bit like being trapped in a maze. You finally round one corner, you feel mostly assured you are heading safely in the right direction, and somehow you wind up in a place that feels a lot like back where you started. In the United States, most brick-and-mortar retail locations were subject to state or local government mandates to close in-person operations last March. Depending on where your store resides, you could have re-opened as early as late April or you may still be under government orders that prohibit in-person sales.
In Louisville, Kentucky, our regular brick-and-mortar operations were closed for a total of three months: one week prior to a two-month state shut down of non-essential retail, and another three weeks after the mandate lifted to prepare properly for re-starting in-person sales. But just because you can be open, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Making the difficult decision on how and when to reopen safely can be maddening. If you are still considering whether or not you can safely open those doors, ask yourself these four questions:
- Can I stand behind and invest in the needed safety precautions (masks, sanitizers, cleaners, staffing, reduced capacity measures, etc.) to re-open?
- Is my specific location (i.e. my local government, my customer base, the hospital ICUs) well-equipped to handle public life in the midst of this pandemic?
- Will the lack of in-person revenue negatively impact my record store to such a degree that the business will become unsustainable?
- Am I able to reopen without seriously jeopardizing my own health and the health of my staff?
If the answer to even one of these is no, skip to tip No. 7 and come back when you can give thumbs-up to all of them. But if you are able to answer yes, assuredly, to all of the above, then let’s talk opening those doors! Six weeks into re-opening, two routine negative COVID-19 tests later, and lots of interactions with happy, masked record shoppers tell us it is possible to be open to the public in a way that benefits our business and our community. Here are the most important tips I have to offer on re-opening your record store.
1. Stock up on PPE.
Customers and staff need to wear masks. This is not a debate. This is a policy based in science and endorsed by retail associations across the globe. Get to work purchasing masks, hand sanitizer, and disposable gloves weeks before you open your doors. Contact your local Chamber of Commerce or independent business organizations and, where possible, buy PPE (personal protective equipment) directly from businesses in your community. Hit terribly hard by the earlier closure? Think about asking your customer base for a little help. Do a sanitizer drop or incentivize wearing your own mask by offering a discount on purchases the first week. Look into relevant local grants or partnerships that may help offset costs associated with personal protective equipment. Remember, “keeping the economy open” includes your record store, and for the foreseeable future, there is no way to maintain long-term, in-person shopping viability without these measures in place.
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2. Embrace the new world order of systems and strictly enforce store capacities.
To be honest, we’ve historically run our shop a bit more laissez-faire. This in no way works for pandemic retail. A detailed cleaning checklist, for example, will not only make sure everything gets clean but also helps ease general anxiety amongst staff and customers. Marry new procedures with old ones. Invest in an infrared thermometer so owners and staff can easily check their temperature when they log in for work each day. Make it easy to wipe down surfaces and sanitation stations while restocking records. Add a clear and safe system for record-buying. To ease foot traffic and conversation at the counter, we ask for drop-offs by appointment, in sealed boxes, and quarantine each record buy for three days before examining them.
Make sure to read up on any coronavirus reopening protocol from your local health department or state government and create systems to meet those standards. Are your standards higher than your government’s? Find a record store friend in another location that more suitably mimics your relation to the crisis and ask them what their leaders have asked of its in-person retail locations. I would encourage store capacities max at 10 people when you first open your doors, even in the largest spaces. You can always increase as cases level off and systems become habitual. Tiny store? Max it at one to two people or try a by-appointment shopping model.
3. Think like an educator. Buy a laminator.
Expect that a large part of your job now is educating consumers on how to safely shop in and navigate being in the public. For the first few weeks, staff a specific person to help direct shopping behavior in pandemic times. You will need someone to politely (or not, up to you) ask folks to space out, keep their mask on their nose, sanitize their hands upon entry, or wait outside when the store is at capacity. On your own? Ask a friend, partner, or loyal customer for help. The best way to direct consumer behavior in the long-term is with simple infographic signs that — you guessed it — we laminated and can sanitize easily at the end of each day. Directives on how many people should be at each rack, hand sanitizing stations, and even “Stop/At Capacity” signs to place at your door are remarkably helpful for maintaining social distance needs in small spaces. We use the online design platform, Canva, for mocking up our own signage, but Sharpies work, too. Have fun and make the signs a part of your vibe. Just remember that simple, clear, redundant signage is best.
4. Re-envision your space.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for many record stores is the lack of physical space. Digging isn’t merely a metaphor for record shopping; it is often literal. I have endlessly squeezed next to standing strangers to sit on the floor and flip through LPs and turned my body to its slimmest profile to meander through record crates. Those days, for now, are over.
Clean out your space. Ask yourself what can be moved out, reduced, and taken home for online sale. Prior to reopening, we marked down hundreds of overstock titles, made LP grab bags, listed rarer titles that hadn’t moved in a while in the store to Discogs for online sale, and moved some of our stock to off-site storage and home “offices.” If you have a staff member for whom it is unsafe to work in public, consider having them work from home selling items online.
Ventilate your space. Ventilation is key for preventing virus spread, particularly in closed small areas, so keep those doors and windows open. Move inventory outside. We use our sidewalk for our cheap LP section. It not only gives us more space, but it also gives patrons waiting to come into the store something to do while they wait. In all, we moved about 20% of our inventory off the main floor.
Reconsider your store in terms of shopping areas too. Place sections that receive less traffic closer to high-traffic areas and rearrange any racks that had customers shopping face-to-face or consider adding plexiglass barriers between them. If one-way aisles make sense for your store, do that. Revisit issues around arrangement and ventilation regularly. It’s a lot of work, but it has 100% paid off in terms of both safety and sales.
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5. Ease consumer choice.
Let’s face it — shopping in the time of COVID-19 can be life-threatening. That’s a lot to add to the plate of folks wanting to support your store. Help customers who haven’t been able to shop in-person in months by fostering easy and efficient decision making. Display new releases in the same area, consistently. Place used new arrivals close to the entry and display rarer records prominently on the wall. Perhaps most importantly, maintain stock levels of best-selling “classic” inventory. Many customers didn’t know there was a hole in their collection until they spent so many homebound days with it this past spring. Those holes are often the “things we meant to buy” but left in the rack. What are those titles? What LPs do you sell hand-over-fist in your store? Try your best not to run out of that inventory right now. For us, that means making sure the fountain of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Kendrick Lamar’s Damn never run dry. (I, of course, know there are titles we cannot stock — looking at you Run the Jewels catalog — but don’t let those get in your way with knowing what titles you can.) Honor each customer’s trek to your store and have “can’t-go-wrong-with-this-one” titles ready. You can also add a bestsellers tab to your online store. I highly recommend it.
6. Do not require people to shop inside your store just because you reopened it.
There is still a pandemic going on. I repeat, there is still a pandemic going on. Many customers will rightly choose not to go into public places. Respect those decisions and do not abandon the practices you used to reach people during quarantine. Encourage voice and email shopping. Build a webstore. If that sounds daunting, ask for help. I almost guarantee you have a customer who would whip up and teach you how to operate a basic webstore in trade. We sold nothing on our website before COVID-19 except branded merchandise and occasional pre-orders. Now we maintain around 1,000 titles online including weekly new releases and continue offering shipping, delivery, and curbside pick-up. As cases increase in your community, having avenues already in place for customers to shop and support from afar will be key. There should absolutely be some extension of your brick-and-mortar space after you reopen even if it’s as simple as you at the store by the phone offering to walk a purchase outside.
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7. Don’t open.
If you can’t answer yes to all those earlier questions, then I’d encourage you to sit tight and stay closed for now. The decision to reopen should be deeply rooted in your specific context and done in your own time. It should be revisited and acknowledged as potentially imperfect and impermanent. If you are in a community where your public supports you online and other like-minded independent businesses are also closed, then stay closed. If you are high risk of complications from the coronavirus, consider beefing up curbside options to get staff back to work but hold off on in-person sales. If you just opened up shop prior to COVID-19 and are wondering what the heck to do, examine your options. If your lease is flexible and you can manage to reach people online, consider hitting the pause button on the brick-and-mortar and reopen branded, cool, and at-the-ready in a new physical location down the road.
The bottom line.
The bottom line is that all of these tips I’ve offered are just that. Tips. They are the best hands-on advice I can offer from almost two months of being open, from operating with as much minimal risk for virus spread as possible, and from reading ongoing COVID-19 research from reputable medical journalists, healthcare professionals, and government guidelines. Unfortunately, there is no zero-risk shopping scenario now or in the foreseeable future. Records can be bought and sold at our computers, at the curb, through the phone, and at a safe distance. Record stores, however, are made of humans, and humans are incredibly vulnerable to the coronavirus. It’s perfectly OK to remind record buyers that to have the future we all want, a future that will show up eventually, we have to follow protocol and keep those doors closed a little bit longer.
Good luck, wear your mask, make good choices, and keep spinning.
Feature image by Annie Theby.