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Retailers Continue To Adjust To Survive During A Pandemic

CareSTL Health's COVID-19 testing site in north St. Louis will reopen on April 27.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Retail businesses have had to change how they operate because of restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic. The longer it lasts, the more likely these changes will be permanent.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed how most retail businesses in the St. Louis region operate.

Businesses face limits on how many people can be inside their buildings. And stores across the region are adapting to mask mandates, social distancing measures and sanitizing routines.

These changes have disrupted the normal operational flow for Goodwill stores in the region, said Mark Kahrs, executive vice president of retail at MERS/Goodwill. He explained that stores have seen around 10% more donations than they did last year at this time because people have spending more time at home.

“We expected a very large increase in donations,” Kahrs said. “We were isolating those donations, not digging through them.”

But the increase in product volume has created new challenges because Goodwill stores are operating with less staff, like many other retail, food service and warehouse-based businesses, he said.

“We’re putting a lot of labor into just managing the donations,” Kahrs said. “You have to go through all those items and select the right ones.”

The short staffing makes it more difficult for items to make it to store floors as quickly as they could in the past, he said. The pandemic has also cut how many people are visiting Goodwill stores; foot traffic is around 80% of what it was at this point last year, Kahrs added.

Other retail establishments are grappling with lower customer counts too, which translates to lower revenue, said Peter Boumgarden, who teaches strategy and organization at Washington University’s Olin School of Business.

“You’re going to do as much as you can to reduce expenses,” he said. "Can we get by with a little less staffing? Can we get by with reducing some hours?”

The other major way Boumgarden sees businesses surviving right now is by transitioning their retail space online.

“If you’re an online business or a business that has a significant portion of online that accounts for your revenue, you’re in a slightly better spot. Although not perfect,” he said.

Boumgarden added moving sales online pits a business against behemoths like Amazon. Just having an online shopping space doesn’t guarantee a store’s physical customers will follow, he said.

That’s true of Derrick Maxwell Sr.’s typical customers at the Personal Touch Boutique in East St. Louis, which sells higher-end clothing.

“My customers, they’d rather touch and feel the items,” he said. “They don’t shop online, or at least they don’t shop online at my business.”

For Maxwell, the pandemic has upended his normal customers because of restrictions on other industries, like bars, restaurants and churches. He said most of his customers come to him for outfits for those places.

“Even if they wanted to shop online, there’s no place to go,” he said. “There’s no weddings, no churches, no restaurants to go to.”

Maxwell is still selling some clothing, but it’s mostly to families attending funerals.

“To just get business just for funerals — people are dying all around you — it takes a toll on your spirit,” he said. “I’m glad to serve them, I’m glad to be there for those people, but it takes a toll on me emotionally.”

He said it’s important for him to be there to support the East St. Louis community, especially right now.

“People that don’t know me, they’re surprised to see a Black owner, owning a clothing store such as mine. It brings pride to the community,” he said.

And the pandemic has highlighted the support he receives too. Maxwell said many customers have stopped to check in on him since March.

“They’re itching to support me. I feel their pull for me,” he said. “They haven’t forgotten about me, they’re just waiting for a cure and this pandemic to pass us by hopefully.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid