Is It Safe to Shop for Clothes in Stores During Coronavirus?

Maybe you gained a couple of extra pounds from that COVID-19 comfort food diet and need some new pants. Maybe you’re headed back to the office for a few hours a week, and want to step up your corporate casual style. Or maybe—after seeing that your shopping habits of the last few months have just made Jeff Bezos even richer — you’re ready to go into a store where you can touch and feel real clothes and actually try a few things on. While shopping during a pandemic is becoming possible in more and more places across the country, it does come with a few questions. Is it safe? Are the dressing rooms clean? Can I try on clothes that somebody else did? Is fashion really so essential that it’s worth putting store employees at risk? 

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We’ve been wondering the same thing, and spoke to Dr. William Greenough from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, and several stores about their plans to keep both customers and staff safe. 

What to Know Before Entering Stores

The Johns Hopkins Coronvirus Resource Center offers regularly updated data about the virus’s spread, down to a county level, which can help you decide if you want to leave the house at all. Once you feel safe headed out the door, then the doctor points out that you can probably make a sound judgment just by walking into a store. Is it crowded at the entry? Is the store enforcing social distancing by only allowing a certain number of people in the store at a time? “This isn’t a medical issue,” he says, “It’s a common sense issue. I don’t like standing in lines, but waiting in one to get into a Whole Foods makes me feel safe.”

Jim Ockert of Khakis in Carmel, Calif., says, “We meet people at the door, and have a table with masks right there. All of our employees wear masks and there are contactless hand sanitizer dispensers scattered throughout the store. People respect our protocol and our reputation. We have training sessions with our staff six days a week on everything from product to how we handle the door, and they know how to stand six or seven feet away from a customer and make it seem like it’s not a big deal.” 

“As long as clothing stores are doing social distancing and mask wearing, they should be fairly safe. The places that are high risk now, though, are places where there are crowds, so malls are much more dangerous than freestanding stores. You don’t know what’s going on with air management at a mall, either.” says Dr. Greenough.

Saks Fifth Avenue, for instance, is requiring daily temperature checks of its associates, and makes hand sanitizer available for both employees and customers. Face coverings are required for everyone while in the store. Each location has been thoroughly cleaned and HVAC filters replaced. The housekeeping staff is working throughout the day, especially cleaning high-traffic areas. 

How Retails Stores Are Trying to Stay Safe

Beyond masks and cleaning, stores are emphasizing steaming and quarantining clothes, allowing time between customers, and having plexiglass dividers between customers and cashiers at checkout desks. 

“Clothes are quite safe,” says Dr. Greenough. “Be sure to try on things that are fresh off the rack and not what somebody else tried on right before you, though. There seems to be a diminishing concern about the virus being transmitted on surfaces.” 

According to the CDC, flu viruses are killed by heat above 167 degrees, and initial research indicates that the coronavirus is killed at around 133 degrees. Steam is produced at 212 degrees, so check that sales associates are steaming clothes after your fellow shoppers try them on, as an added safety measure. 

“Any garment that is tried on is steam-cleaned and quarantined for 24 hours, says Dana Katz, of Milton’s in Chestnut Hill and Braintree, Mass. Every other dressing room stall is closed and the open ones are wiped down every few hours. All fitters wear both face masks and shields, and all touched devices sanitized after every use.” 

Nick Hansen of Chicago custom suit maker Nicholas Joseph says that his sales associates call each other when they’re grocery shopping to corner the market on local supplies of the disinfectant wipes they use in the shop. “We worked with our designer to have custom desk shields created that would go with our decor,” Hansen points out. “We’re a by appointment service anyway, but we added 30 minutes between clients to allow for more time to clean. We now allow only one client and one associate in the showroom at a time. I’d be comfortable having my 71-year-old father shop here.” 

In Lansing, Michigan, the state capital, 155-year-old Kositchek’s Menswear also has an in-store barber shop, “so we’ve always had to maintain an extra level of cleanliness,” says owner David Kositchek.  

Saks Fifth Avenue is encouraging consumers to take advantage of its virtual shopping opportunities, where associates and stylists work with shoppers on FaceTime or Zoom. The Saks By Appointment service allows for in-store visits during off-hours to minimize contact with other shoppers and allow easier access to fitting rooms. Even an independent store like Miltons, with two brick-and-mortar locations, has beefed up its online presence to make shopping easier. Nicholas Joseph has even perfected virtual measurement techniques, working with out-of-showroom customers to create made-to-measure garments over FaceTime or Zoom. 

Virtual shopping may just be the safest opportunity out there, short of not shopping at all. When international sneaker and streetwear store Snipes planned to open its new location at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center in July, the typical safety measures were put in place, including required mask wearing and fifty-percent store occupancy to make social distancing easy. Unfortunately, the waiting crowd of around 100 potential shoppers grew impatient to get into the store, so management closed the front door. That’s when somebody tossed fireworks into the crowd, which quickly led to the store closing on its big day. While nobody seems to have been injured, the event was a grim reminder of the pressures the pandemic is putting on our society as a whole, and, again, calling shopping safety into question. 

How to Safely Shop for Clothes as Stores Reopen

While this all may sound a bit daunting, by following some common sense procedures we can all not only freshen up our wardrobes while stimulating the economy; we can do it all while keeping ourselves — and the employees of the stores where we shop — safe and sound. 

  1. Check CDC and local guidelines 
  2. Maintain social distance, wear a mask, and wash or sanitize your hands often
  3. Manage your time well: the longer you’re in a store, the greater the risk of exposure. If possible, pre-shop online first, so you’ll be able to maintain a laser focus. 
  4. If a store looks crowded, come back later.
  5. Look for plexiglass protection between you and the cashier. 
  6. Find stores that use contactless payment like Apple Pay or Google Pay. Bring your own pen if you do need to sign something, or enter a pin. 
  7. Check that the store is clearly communicating its own requirements with proper signage. A professional approach indicates serious intent. 
  8. Has dressing room capacity been limited? If not maybe it’s worth taking something home to try on and venturing back out for an exchange later. 
  9. Check out the employees. Are they wearing masks? Do they seem stressed out? Maybe cut them a break, too, and come back when things are quiet, or when management is being more responsible. 

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