A surge in COVID-19 cases has Chicago retailers facing new restrictions, just as holiday shopping season hits

Lauren Zumbach and Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune

Retailers were starting to see shoppers return to stores this fall. Now, a surge in COVID-19 cases has brought new restrictions, just as Chicago-area stores were gearing up for the busiest shopping season of the year.

Starting Friday, Illinois retailers and malls will be limited to 25% of their usual capacity, down from 50%. Grocery stores and pharmacies will be able to operate at half capacity, but big box chains selling some grocery and pharmacy items will also face the tighter limits.

The changes follow stay-at-home advisories announced last week in Chicago and Cook County urging residents to voluntarily remain home as much as possible, which some small business owners worry could become mandatory.

At Bronzeville Boutique, a 30-year-old women’s fashion store on Chicago’s South Side, manager Imani Kutti is concerned the new capacity restrictions will scare away the dwindling ranks of in-store shoppers. The few shoppers who do come in often call ahead to make sure there’s room to navigate and try on clothes, and hours can go by without a single customer.

“Even though we are a small store, it still makes a difference,” Kutti said. “People are being told there can’t be that many customers inside, so they just assume they won’t be able to come here.”

It’s one more challenge for retailers trying to recover sales lost when nonessential stores were forced to close their doors in an attempt to control the coronavirus pandemic. Retailers say they are more prepared, with upgraded websites and smoother curbside pickup. Many have started Black Friday deals earlier in November, to spread out crowds over a longer period.

Some say they are already voluntarily operating below the state’s 25% capacity limit. Walmart imposed a 20% cap, or about five customers per 1,000 square feet, in April. Foot traffic rarely reached that level, but the retailer has resumed counting the number of people entering and leaving stores “out of an abundance of caution,” spokesman Casey Staheli said.

J.C. Penney has closed some entrances and exits so employees can keep track of the number of people entering and leaving. Chicago-area stores are fairly large, so social distancing isn’t difficult, spokeswoman Kristen Bennett said in an email

Smaller shops said they haven’t been crowded, but Nancy Stanek, owner of Toys Et Cetera in Hyde Park, said the 25% limit could be an issue during busier days in December. Though she has seen lines of shoppers outside other stores, she isn’t sure her customers would be so patient, especially during a frigid Chicago winter.

She is encouraging people to shop early and “hoping and praying” to avoid another shutdown.

“I have to remain optimistic,” she said. “They’ve taken every other holiday from the kids, they can’t take Christmas away.”

Bigger businesses have been investing in technology that makes waiting less of a pain. Brookfield Properties malls, including Water Tower Place and Oakbrook Center, let customers join a virtual line at some stores so they can shop elsewhere until it’s their turn to enter. So do Target and Lululemon, and Best Buy uses a similar digital queue to keep lines from forming in stores while customers wait to get help from an employee, spokesman Matthew Smith said.

At Maya Papaya & Tony Macarony, a kids' clothing and gifts store in Evanston, owner Simone Oettinger was less concerned about capacity limits, since her store rarely gets more than a handful of shoppers at a time.

“I think people are scared enough they’re staying away,” she said.

The prospect of another full shutdown was far more troubling than the new capacity limits, particularly for smaller businesses worried big box chains would be able to remain open as essential businesses.

“If you’re going to Target to buy toilet paper and you see a toy, you might as well buy it … Each sale Target does off a nonessential item is a sale a small retailer is losing,” Oettinger said. “It’s very unfair.”

Others questioned a stay-at-home advisory and capacity restrictions that seemed to encourage stores to remain open while advising their customers to stay away.

“It seems like a cop-out,” said Claire Tibbs, who owns home goods store Humboldt House and kids’ shop Peach Fuzz in Humboldt Park.

If the stay-at-home advisory remains voluntary, rather than mandatory, she thinks small businesses will have a harder time getting financial assistance or convincing landlords to give them a break on rent. Her stores, and others in the community, were already voluntarily operating below half capacity.

Tibbs thinks another mandatory stay-at-home order is likely. But while she expects customers will move to her online store, as they did this spring, being forced to close during the holidays would require tougher decisions about her employees.

The shutdown in March hit during a slow period, when she typically only has one store manager. Going into the holidays, she has five employees, some working part-time.

If retailers have an advantage this time, it’s having gone through the first stay-at-home order this spring. Stores that were blindsided by the sudden loss of in-store traffic have since launched or streamlined low-contact services like curbside pickup and speedier home delivery.

Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s have partnered with DoorDash to offer same-day home delivery from 500 stores and Best Buy has a similar partnership with Instacart. Target has made more items available for same-day home delivery and doubled the number of curbside pickup spots.

Smaller retailers upgraded online stores, including Bronzeville Boutique, which kept itself afloat during the pandemic by selling high-fashion masks online and get-out-the-vote T-shirts at Chicago protest rallies. It also began offering free same-day delivery.

At Timeless Toys, in Lincoln Square, Scott Friedland added more of his store’s toys to his online shop and has been doing more giveaways and toy demos on social media. Online orders have accounted for about 25% of his sales this year, and he thinks they could hit 50% over the holidays, up from less than 2% during that period last year.

But it’s no replacement for in-store sales, he said.

“As a small toy store, we really rely on customer service, which is lost when you come online,” Friedland said.

Oettinger, at Maya Papaya & Toni Macaroni, plans to launch an easier-to-shop online store by Thanksgiving. “If I don’t, I’m dead,” she said.

Customers are also more prepared and know local shops may have online stores and other services like curbside pickup and in-person or virtual private shopping appointments, said Nancy Cummings, executive director of the La Grange Business Association.

Store owners and local business groups are encouraging shoppers to support neighborhood retailers this season, even if events like Black Friday and Small Business Saturday look different from usual.

The Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce is selling gift cards that can be redeemed at a range of local shops and restaurants, and the La Grange Business Association created a digital catalog featuring some of the top gifts from La Grange. There will be flash sales on Small Business Saturday, but customers can choose whether they want to shop in person or place an order for curbside pickup, Cummings said.

Anderson’s Bookshop, with stores in Naperville and Downers Grove, won’t hold its usual Small Business Saturday parties with treats and author events, but it will still encourage people to shop local. The new 25% capacity limit means shoppers may need to wait in line during busier periods, but event coordinator Ginny Wehrli-Hemmeter thinks people who enjoy browsing in person will be willing to wait.

“If those are the rules, those are the rules,” she said. “I think people are used to the concept nowadays.”

lzumbach@chicagotribune.com

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

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