Retail Is Open. Now What?

Portland is still under a stay-at-home order, but retail stores are ready for customers. How are boutique owners coping?

By Eden Dawn May 22, 2020

Even though their customers are still under stay at home orders, retail stores throughout Multnomah County were allowed to "reopen" a week ago.

But whether they are doing so is another story. 

Reopening, boutique owners tell Portland Monthly, requires adhering to a complicated set of guidelines from the state, including limits on the number of customers allowed inside storefronts, no trying on items like sunglasses or earrings and the erection of plexiglass barriers between cashiers and customers. 

All this, even though Oregon's largest county has yet to even apply to formally begin the reopening process because Multnomah County is not yet able to support the necessary contact tracing needed for safety measures. (Meanwhile, on May 22, Marion and Polk County officially joined the ranks of counties that have opened under Phase 1 of Gov. Kate Brown’s reopening plan with Clackamas and Washington Counties in the application process.)

Shop owners who have reopened say they’ve received disgruntled calls from customers telling them they’re not allowed to be open yet. Others say they’re still not sure if they’re required to provide masks to their customers who show up without them. And many store owners have opted to not open at all yet, feeling they are not prepared, physically or mentally.

“There still isn’t a true sense of security making it not worth it to re-open. This a sentiment that most of us share, which leads me to believe that people will continue to only shop for essential items and still not feel safe when it comes to shopping retail,” says Via Raiz owner Jennifer Bolanos. “For me personally, being a mom to a newborn, I don’t want to put my health and my family’s health at risk. It just feels too soon.”

Other store owners echoed the worry about if the risk of opening would be rewarded with enough customers to make it worth it. “The last few months have been taxing and frustrating as we’ve been denied all financial assistance, but we feel our health outweighs the financial burden. So with that we have also decided to postpone a reopening due to safety concerns,” say Idle Hands Collective owners Travis Wheeler and Amanda Dennison. “The constant conflicting health statistics cornered by all the business restrictions make it almost impossible to operate safely. (We) also feel that shoppers will be hesitant to purchase anything other than nonessential items and/or continue shopping online, therefore, making it unnecessary to open our doors until we know everything is under control.”

With most local boutiques clocking in at a fraction the size of a grocery store, directives like one-way shopping traffic and social distancing mean far fewer potential sales for an already rattled industry.

“There is now a shortage of plexiglass, up to four to six weeks. But the biggest [issue] is stores like mine can’t sanitize our products with alcohol. Leather and fabric handbags, paper, silk sachets, cards, jewelry can’t be rubbed with alcohol often or the metal is damaged. And we’ve been told by the state to not let people put things on their head: so no trying sunglasses, readers, earrings, scarves, hats unless we pull them off the floor afterward,” says Tilde owner Debbe Hamada via email. “It’s just lots of extra explanation and staff time. We’re going to insist everyone sanitize and wear a mask, but we already see push back on wearing masks which scares us. I’m debating having no returns or charging a fee on returns. I’m going to have to hold returns off the floor for three days to sanitize them which is very hard for a store that may only have one of each item. All overwhelming for a very small business. All extra staff and tasks at a time when we have less revenue and staff.” 

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