Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Lights are turning on at more stores, but a lot of thought went into that decision

By Stephanie Ritenbaugh | Link to article

Macy’s announced Friday plans to reopen stores in the Pittsburgh region this weekend. American Eagle Outfitters and its sister store Aerie are reopening as well. Dick’s Sporting Goods began opening its doors last week.

They’re among the national retail names making the complicated calculations about which stores to unlock once states ease restrictions placed on businesses as part of the COVID-19 pandemic — but the openings have often come slowly and deliberately.

Western Pennsylvania’s move into the less-restrictive yellow phase of the state’s tiered reopening plan, for example, did not bring an immediate return of all the merchants to places like Grove City Premium Outlets or the Waterfront shopping center in Homestead. And department stores at enclosed malls didn’t rush to set up the cash registers, even though the rules allowed it because they have separate entrances.

“We have a list of not only what stores can open, but what stores will open,” said Andrew McLean, chief commercial officer for South Side-based AEO Inc., the parent company of American Eagle and Aerie.

The apparel company began reopening select locations on May 1 and has opened 435 locations in the U.S.

Retail executives from several chains have said that, while they may be eager to see shoppers return to pick up the latest in spring apparel or new home decor, it’s not as simple as flipping around the open sign.

AEO has a “control tower meeting” daily with its global asset protection team — store operators, real estate, and legal and communications teams, along with medical experts — to look at changing regulations state by state and even county by county.

The company brought in Dr. Joshua Schwarzbaum, as a medical consultant in March, to advise it on how to safely reopen stores for both workers and customers.

As part of its risk management plan, AEO had a pandemic response in place after the outbreak of SARS, another coronavirus, in 2002 and 2003.

“As with every plan, it’s a living, breathing document,” Mr. McLean said. “We’ve made adjustments as we’ve learned.”

The company was able to hone its response in the United States after responding to the COVID-19 outbreak at its stores in Hong Kong and operations in China earlier this year.

Macy’s said Friday that its stores would be available for in-store shopping, curbside delivery and in-store pick-up the Galleria At Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer, Monroeville Mall, Ross Park Mall, South Hills Village, The Mall at Robinson and Westmoreland Mall in Greensburg.

“We began reopening our stores on May 4 and, as of this week, have approximately 190 Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s stores open in their full formats,” said Jeff Gennette, chairman and CEO, in a performance update in May 21.

He said he expected another 80 Macy’s stores to open for Memorial Day weekend.

“We have enhanced health and safety standards across all of our stores and facilities. We are also offering curbside pickup in many of our locations, including some stores that remain closed to the public,” Mr. Gennette stated.

“We are closely watching consumer behavior as we reopen more stores, and we remain flexible as we navigate this crisis. We expect business to recover gradually.”

Kohl’s department stores has reopened about half of its locations across the country since May 4, including those in the Pittsburgh region.

“We have followed a set of criteria, including state guidelines, health data, store readiness and field insights to help us determine the timing of store reopening,” CEO Michelle Gass said in the company’s May 19 earnings call with analysts.

She vowed to be agile as conditions continue to change but said that when stores do open, they’ve been doing 50% to 60% percent of typical sales.

For those stores that are inside an indoor mall, it’s another hurdle. For indoor malls in Pennsylvania, only tenants with external entrances may open, as well as pharmacy or health care tenants with either interior or external entrances, according to the guidelines meant to curb the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

Once inside any store that opens, customers will find that browsing is going to be a different experience than it was even a few months ago.

Stores are removing displays and opening up the space to make it easier to keep distance from other shoppers.

American Eagle replaced the space at the front of its store where the retailer would showcase the latest hot items.

Instead, customers will now see a welcome station — complete with masks, gloves hand sanitizer and a clean mat to wipe their shoes.

So far, the retailer has opened its stores at Cranberry Mall in Butler County, Pittsburgh Tanger Outlets and Grove City Premium Outlets.

“We want to give customers a sense of normalcy but also a sense of safety,” said Mr. McLean of AEO.