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COVID-19 poses big questions for Whistler retailers

Whistler Chamber hosts webinar on recovery strategies

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Whistler retailers have their work cut out for them in navigating B.C.'s new COVID-19 reality, but they can take lessons from those who opted to stay open throughout the pandemic.

One such local retailer—James Retty at Escape Route—joined a Whistler Chamber webinar on Thursday, May 21 to share some key takeaways.

"We have stayed open all the way through, and honestly, at the very beginning it was quite stressful," Retty said.

"I know that my customers were very happy that I was open, in a very careful fashion. The door was closed, one person at a time, call for appointment. We delivered a lot of stuff, curbside pickup, all of that, and that was appreciated by staff."

Key for Retty was ensuring his staff (75-per-cent of which he initially had to lay off) was comfortable being at work.

"The reality is, if our staff are not comfortable with being at work and our customers are not comfortable coming in the door—if they don't feel welcome and safe—then none of us have a business."

To help reassure customers, Retty has kept an ever-growing list of precautions posted in his store—starting with five and growing to 11.

Some of the other measures he's taken include sanitizer and gloves for customers at the door and a quarantine system for products—but even that process has evolved over the weeks.

"Initially it was zero try-ons of garments, and then it was, as long as it's not an over-the-head item, so if it's shoes or something like that, that was fine," Retty said.

"What we are currently doing is, if someone tries something on, and they don't buy it, it comes into our back room, and we have three separate sections."

The item works its way through the three-section "quarantine" before it is put back on the floor, Retty said.

Also joining the webinar (held over Zoom) were Greg Wilson, director of government relations in B.C. with the Retail Council of Canada, and Chamber CEO Melissa Pace.

The science is still out on the virus' lifespan as it pertains to different types of clothing, Wilson said.

"So we're going to have to wait and see what the science says on how long the virus can live," he said. "And it's very important with apparel to remember that [no] two fabrics are alike, and accordingly, it may live a different period of time on 100 per-cent cotton than on some mixed fabrics."

Retailers like Retty who have stayed open "are truly our heroes," Wilson said.

"It helped us in a way that's kind of intangible, that people don't understand ... some of the best practices we're seeing rolled out now are a result of those people who stayed open," he said.

Retailers can find COVID-19 resources (including a six-part recovery playbook covering everything from customer and employee safety to operations and finances) at retailcouncil.org, he added.

By law, businesses must have a written workplace COVID-19 safety plan in place before reopening.

"Essentially they have to create a written plan, and you have to be able to furnish that written plan to a WorkSafe inspector should they come and visit your store," Wilson said.

A safety plan template, along with other COVID-19 resources for retailers, can be found at worksafebc.com.

There are still "a lot of unknowns" around the reopening of many businesses, Pace said, adding that the Chamber will be sharing relevant resources with members as well.

"It sounds to me like it might be quite vague, in terms of how to manage the clothing options, at this point, and more information is to come," she said.

"So the better safety precautions that you take now will benefit in the long run."

Watch the full webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_enuGVlYJE&t=477s