by Andrew Garda
The state of New Jersey has taken a step closer to normal.
A new executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy permits the resumption of non-essential construction and curbside pickup for non-essential retail businesses as of 6 a.m. Monday, May 18. The order also permits drive-through and drive-in events under social distancing guidelines.
Murphy was careful to stress that, while this is a step forward, it’s just one of many, and those following will depend on many factors, including New Jersey’s continued dedication to following his stay-at-home order.
“I’ve been clear that data will determine dates, and what we are seeing gives us confidence that we can begin the careful restart of our economy,” the governor said at his press conference on Wednesday, May 13. “Over the past eight weeks, New Jerseyans have taken our stay-at-home order seriously and have created the conditions that make this next phase possible. The steps we are taking allow for important standards of social distancing to continue with the return of safe, responsible business operations.”
With the order allowing retail to begin opening up again, Montclair establishments are getting ready to adjust to the new way of business. No customers will be allowed into shops, and stores will have to find ways to manage orders without having crowds hovering around their storefronts.
It won’t be easy, says Jodie Thorz Dawson of Java Love, who has already experienced the ups and downs of curbside pickup with her business, which as a restaurant or cafe was allowed to remain open.
“Who’s monitoring the people outside on the sidewalk who, you know, haven’t seen each other for a long time, who all of a sudden are so excited to see their neighbor?” she said. While there have been hiccups, Dawson does have some advice for retail store owners who may be cracking their doors open for the first time since the shutdown in March.
“I think one is clear communication to set expectations for customers,” she said. “I think it’s a very confusing time, and we’re creating new habits, so what worked before is not working now, or we can’t do it now, so as people re-create their business models, I think communicating to customers on the expectations for service is really important.”
Some businesses in Montclair, such as comic book store East Side Mags, had continued to serve their customers via curbside pickup and shipping. Owner Jeff Beck said the store wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t been able to deal with his customers this way.
“Instead of talking to you, I’d have been having a conversation with my landlord about breaking the lease because I don’t think I would be able to afford it at this point,” he said on a call after Murphy’s announcement. “I definitely don’t think that I would still be sitting here today had I not made myself available for curbside pickup and shipping, had I just shuttered my doors and not done this as the bare minimum.”
Stores like East Side Mags, or Watchung Booksellers — which said on its website that it was offering curbside pickup — have been serving customers this way during the shutdown, and the reality is that doing so has allowed them to survive.
“I wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay open,” Beck said. “It’s that simple.”
While retailers are likely overjoyed at the prospect of finally reopening, Beck cautions that opening is only part of the equation.
“We are definitely on our way to being able to open our doors and welcome people back in, but based on their level of comfortability,” he said. “Because really, the governor can close whatever he wants, he can reopen whatever he wants, he can put any restrictions up as possible, but when it comes to small business or any business, it’s not the governor. It’s the people. And if the people aren’t comfortable going out, mingling and mixing together, shopping and bumping into each other, picking up or touching something somebody else just touched … that’s what is going to make or break business. Things won’t be back until people feel it’s okay to be out there again.”
It’s only just starting to feel that way for Arlene Carrini and her husband Frank, who own Nouvelle on Valley Road in Upper Montclair. Nouvelle, a woman’s clothing store was opened just over three years ago, when Carrini’s original consignment store, One Savvy Design on Church Street, saw an increasingly big response.
Just a few days into the new retail status, customers are still only starting to discover curbside is available. Carrini has been sending out emails, keeping the Nouvelle website updated and making sure that customers know that they are available.
While the staff has not come back at this point, Carrini herself has redoubled her efforts to give her customers a personal experience despite not being able to come into the store.
“Facetiming with our customers, trying on things, showing them how things are going to fit,” she said. “We’ve always offered great customer service, but now it’s just a little bit more often that it’s happening.”
Adjustments such as using Facetime as Nouvelle has, or special-ordering items as East Side Mags does, or giving customers the ability to shop and order online, then pick their orders up at curbside is the way that stores are going to survive, according to Carrini.
“Obviously everybody’s going to be doing half the business they were going to do,” she said. “So, the more that people can purchase online, you know, the better it’s going to be for the community, because those are the stores that are going to survive the outcome.”
The Carrinis are determined that Nouvelle will be one of those businesses. They had already built a robust online presence before the shutdown, and were able to hit the ground running on Monday, May 18, when retail was allowed to open again.
So whether the store is engaging its customers over a screen, via email, or at NouvelleBoutiques.com, it’s doing its best to reach its customer base and deliver their customers everything from clothes to face masks.
Both stores like East Side Mags, which have been able to be open during the shutdown, and those like Nouvelle, which are just opening again, face a long, hard road back to normal.
However, with his recent executive order, Murphy has given them a chance to take the first steps back in that direction.