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By Brad Tuttle
Updated: May 29, 2020 2:31 PM ET | Originally published: May 27, 2020
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Your local mall may be open now, and if not it probably will be soon. But all is not remotely back to normal.

For months, many people have only gone shopping online or at essential stores, like their local supermarket and pharmacy, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Discretionary retail spending has plummeted. In April, sales of clothing and accessories were down nearly 90% year over year, according to the latest Census Bureau data. J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, and J.C. Penney — which were struggling badly even before COVID-19 caused widespread store closures — have entered bankruptcy just as malls begin to reopen. Meanwhile, Pier 1 Imports will be reopening stores just so that it can host liquidation sales as the company goes completely out of business.

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At the same time some retailers are desperate merely to stay alive, the retail industry as a whole is facing a series of tricky balancing acts. Stores want to welcome customers back to engage in carefree shopping excursions, yet at the same time they're making enormous efforts to try to assure shoppers and employees that it's actually safe for stores to be open. Retailers want to woo back shoppers and begin ringing up sales again, yet they must limit the number of customers to abide by social distancing guidelines and local regulations for large gatherings. Retailers are also sitting on vast quantities of inventory that they didn't have the chance to sell in March and April because stores were closed, and store managers must decide if they want to launch huge clearance sales — which might devalue their brand, draw in more customers than stores are comfortable with, or both.

And retailers are addressing these situations with the very real potential for disaster looming. If another outbreak occurs, stores will probably have to close down again, and more of them won't reopen next time around.

So what will it be like to go shopping during the very strange, post-lockdown summer of 2020? Here's what you can expect.

Unmasked Tension: Is Wearing a Mask Required?

Wearing a face mask will either be required or strongly encouraged at most stores and malls this summer. Yet as we've already seen at Kroger supermarkets, Costco stores, Walmart, and shopping centers in Georgia, many people aren't putting on masks. The atmosphere is bound to be tense or even hostile between mask refuseniks and people abiding by CDC guidelines for face coverings in public places, especially because the subject has taken on political undertones.

Things could get particularly ugly if certain shoppers disregard social distancing guidelines. "People who think it's all a hoax will maybe get closer than others are comfortable with," says Leslie Hand, vice president at IDC Retail Insights.

Store employees who normally would be stocking shelves or working the cash register may be put in the awkward position of having to enforce policies and perhaps ask customers to leave. "I think we need bouncers at malls," Forrester retail analyst Sucharita Kodali told Money regarding retailer mask policy enforcement. "Simple as that."

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Signs of Vigilance

The entrance to your favorite store may be stocked with disposable masks for customers who didn't bring their own, hand sanitizer to use on your way in and out, and perhaps even equipment for retailers to conduct infrared temperature checks on customers. Shoppers will also encounter tons and tons of signs in stores this summer.

Signage will run down the new rules for customers — things like basic social distancing protocol and limits on how many people can be in stores and food courts at the same time — and highlight the steps being taken by retailers to keep everyone as safe as possible. These might include daily employee temperature checks, sneeze guards at checkout areas, the removal of display products that encouraged customers to try them out with their own hands, and updated checkout procedures that could ban cash or at least offer contactless payments.

You may see indications of the rigorous new cleaning procedures in effect at stores too. "I think we’ll start to see more UV lights," to clean store surfaces, says Forrester's Kodali.

Summer Deals and Liquidation Sales

Yes, there will be some amazing deals if you go shopping this summer. But the best sales will probably be fairly short-lived, and the biggest discounts might not apply to the merchandise you want most.

"There will be some aggressive promotions originally, just to get people motivated to come back to stores again," says IDC's Hand. Spring and summer fashions are likely to see the biggest markdowns, though Hand says that way back in March, some apparel and luxury retailers saw trouble ahead and cut back severely on orders for summertime goods.

The TJX Companies, which run T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and other discount stores that feature overstock items that couldn't be sold at full price elsewhere, should have plentiful deals for months. "We have been encouraged with the very strong sales we have seen with our initial reopenings," TJX CEO and president Ernie Herrman said to investors in late May. "We believe this very strong start speaks to our compelling value proposition and the appeal of our treasure-hunt shopping experience, as well as pent-up demand."

Nearly 200 J.C. Penney department stores will close this year after the company declared bankruptcy, an unknown number of Neiman Marcus and J. Crew stores are also likely to close, and all of the roughly 540 Pier 1 Imports stores will close in 2020. Shoppers can look forward to liquidation sales at all of these locations, and many others — because more retailer bankruptcies and store closures are all but guaranteed. Just be aware that going-out-of-business sales can be overrated, as they tend to start with mediocre deals and slowly build up to the biggest discounts, after the merchandise as been thoroughly picked over.

Less Customer Service

Certain traditional retail services will disappear for the foreseeable future. Macy's, for example, has suspended ear-piercing and alterations. Fitting rooms and restrooms are likely to be limited or not available, while drinking fountains and kids' play areas will probably be shut down entirely.

Retailer return policies may be different compared to the last time you went shopping too. Some stores haven't been accepting returns, though many are extending their usual refund and exchange periods — so it's best to doublecheck the policy before purchasing anything you're unsure about.

Less Browsing, More Curbside Pickup

Retailers generally try to foster a fun vibe and encourage shoppers to linger and play. That's how people wind up shoppers wind up impulsively buying things that they wouldn't have otherwise even noticed.

The fun aspects of shopping may be considerably dampened this summer. Instead of casually browsing without a care in the world, shoppers are prone to feel rushed and a little on edge. Compared to more typical shopping expeditions in the past, they'll probably get in and get out very quickly, on a mission to grab a specific item they have in mind. Or they might not walk into the store at all. Curbside pickup of online orders is expected to be huge among shoppers, even after stores are fully open.

"Retailers have to come to terms with the fact that many consumers may not feel safe shopping in stores until there is a proven vaccine available," says Frank Poore, CEO of the e-commerce software provider CommerceHub, which found in a survey that 6 in 10 shoppers are more likely to use curbside pickup following the COVID-19 outbreak. "In the interim, retailers need to prioritize investments that give consumers the ability to order online and pick up their orders in an efficient and contactless way."

Fewer Shoppers in General

"There's an element of the population that's just not ready to go back" to shopping like usual, says IDC Retail's Hand. "I think the crowds will be small."

That said, the post-quarantine scene at America's malls is fairly unpredictable. While the number of shoppers in stores is likely to be tiny compared to the typical day last summer, there may be moments when a big rush of customers hits one retailer in particular. Your favorite store could be nearly empty one day, and then have a line of customers waiting outside to get in the next.

Overall, shopping doesn't seem to be that high of a priority for many people coming out of quarantine. A survey conducted for Coresight Research asked Americans what they want to do most after lockdowns end, and "retail therapy" was not in the top four activities — which were visiting family and friends, getting a haircut, dining out at a restaurant, and going on a vacation. "Shopping centers/malls remain among the top locations that consumers expect to avoid," the Coresight report says.

The back-to-school shopping season, which typically takes off in July, could be a turning point, though right now there are more questions than answers. Will parents really bring their kids to the mall to pick out fall outfits? Or will families just do back-to-school clothes shopping online? Heck, will schools even be open for in-class learning this fall?

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