Mahoning Stores Reopen By the Book, Wary of Second Wave

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — For the first time in nearly two months, retailers opened for business across the state. And although reminders of the presence of coronavirus were all around, business owners say the reopening is so far, so good.

The Southern Park Mall wasn’t as busy as it would have been pre-pandemic. Still, general manager Brian Gabbert reported a good crowd Tuesday morning. A few tenants told him business had been good so far, he says.

“One flagged me down and said, ‘I am really killing it today.’ People are buying, people are spending,” he says. “It’s good to see.”

Only about a quarter to a third of mall tenants were open on Tuesday, and Gabbert expects to get half back by the end of the week. The food court had a few vendors open for carryout. All tables and chairs were removed from the space and the children’s play area was closed.

Other amusement items at center court – table tennis, life sized chess, cornhole board, etc. – were also removed. Gabbert says that was necessary to maintain social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

While Southern Park Mall handles its common areas, it doesn’t dictate what the tenants can and can’t do, though they do have to abide by guidelines set by the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he says. Tenants police themselves, from wearing masks to occupancy to sanitizing to putting in Plexiglass barriers.

The mall performs daily health assessments of its employees, and “as I understand, all the tenants are doing that as well,” Gabbert says. Customers, however, are not required to wear masks to shop, although most were yesterday.

“At this point, the guideline from the governor and the health department is a recommendation not a requirement. So we have not stepped on that at all,” he says. “The one thing we’re asking is that folks do maintain a socially respectable distance.”

Retailers across the county are taking similar measures to abide by the guidelines established by the CDC and Gov. Mike DeWine.

To make social distancing easier, Amy Abruzere removed six fixtures from the middle of her sales floor at Grey’s Boutique, 1393 Boardman-Canfield Road. She also maintains a strict headcount of eight to prevent the shop from overcrowding and takes her employee’s temperature and her own daily, she says.

Customers are required to wear a mask or facial covering to enter the shop. Abruzere makes disposable ones available and some nicer ones for purchase. Thus far, customers are abiding.

“That’s really for the safety of myself and my employee,” she says. “I have great customers. I don’t foresee it being a problem.”

Amy Abruzere removed some fixtures from her sales floor at Grey’s Boutique to make social distancing easier.

While there was “a big gap in business” during the stay-at-home order, online sales “didn’t skip a beat,” Abruzere says. She offered curbside pick up for online orders and free local delivery.

Still, the loss of the brick-and-mortar business forced Abruzere to lay off five of her employees during the stay-at-home order, and she has since brought back one. She also reduced the shop’s hours to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and closed on Sunday. Business will determine if Abruzere brings back the other employees, she says.

Sue Ellsworth and her daughter, Kacey, have been customers since Grey’s Boutique opened and were in the boutique Tuesday morning.

“We’re trying to support the local retailers,” Ellsworth says.

Getting out of the house to shop “feels wonderful,” and Ellsworth says she and her daughter weren’t concerned because of the precautions taken by Abruzere. “This is the way our life has to be right now,” she says.

In addition to the masks, temperature checks, spacing and occupancy, Abruzere installed a Plexiglass divider at the check-out station along with a bottle of hand sanitizer. The fitting rooms have been closed off.

“I think if everyone does their part – stays home when they’re not feeling well, wears a mask when they’re out – then we’ll be good,” she says. “I feel very comfortable and confident.”

Greg Thomas agrees. The manager at Golf Headquarters, 1401 Boardman-Canfield Road, is hopeful his customers will bear with the changes and take precautions. All staff at Golf Headquarters wear masks and the store keeps a box of disposable masks at the front door with a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Sue and Kacey Ellsworth shop at Grey’s Boutique

Masks are encouraged, but not mandatory, Thomas says. Customers are required, however, to use hand sanitizer before trying out or fitting a golf club. Clubs are sanitized after each use.

For the time being, fitting isn’t permitted for apparel and golf gloves. The store must also maintain a headcount.

“Typically we don’t have more than five or six people in here at a time,” he says. “But if there ever was a rush, we’re going to make sure that either people are social distancing or ask someone to wait outside until it clears out.”

Like Grey’s Boutique, Golf Headquarters maintained online orders and curbside service during the stay-at-home order. People were still allowed to golf during the order. “We’re hoping there’s some pent up demand and that we’ll be decently busy,” he says.

In terms of the weather, it was a good spring for golf, which made the closure all the more difficult. While the store maintained its full-time staff of 15, part-timers were laid off. In-store business is down about 70% to 80%, he says.

Aebischer’s Jewelry, 68 S. Main St., Poland, was on track for its second consecutive record-breaking year, with first-quarter revenue up 10% year-to-year, says Adam Aebischer. The fourth-generation jeweler says he is keeping a positive mindset as he’s received daily phone calls and emails from customers needing engagement rings, wedding bands and repair work.

“I’m more optimistic about this than some forecasters,” Aebischer says. “Once business can open up, we are going to see a little bit of a faster recovery.”

Aebischer’s will reopen to the public May 19. Customers will be allowed in two at a time, and the only staff are Aebischer and his brother, Alex. The company employs 11.

“The rest of my staff is of the age where this could greatly affect them if they were to catch this virus,” Aebischer says. “We’re going to hopefully bring everybody back.”

Aebischer has installed Plexiglass barriers and curbside pickup will continue. The shop has always been cleaned throughout the day, but cleanliness will be “first and foremost in our minds,” he says.

Cleanliness is heightened at The Great Escape as well, says Matt Harrison, sales specialist. While the store at 340 Boardman-Poland Road typically has just a few customers at a given time, countertops and other surfaces are cleaned after every visit.

The store’s Chicago headquarters sent masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning products, Harrison says. Employees are required to wear masks, but customers aren’t.

While social distancing isn’t really an issue at the store, which only sees a few customers at a time, the supply chain has been at challenge. Stay-at-home orders halted distribution of products like hot tubs and swimming pools, but “people never stopped ordering stuff,” he says. As customers invest in their backyards in lieu of vacations, sales of those items are up 30% to 40% year-over-year.

That surge in demand strained the supply chain. Customers ordering pools today might have to wait until July for the installation, when normally it would only take a few weeks, he says.

“Even though we were still working, the supply chains from where we get most of our stuff were closed,” because the distribution companies weren’t deemed “essential,” he says.

As local retailers navigate the reopening, they are also taking steps to mitigate any potential impact from a second wave of COVID-19, should one occur.

It’s another reason Aebischer’s isn’t bringing its full staff back just yet.

“We would hate to have them come off unemployment just to come right back on,” Aebischer says.

A second wave brings the threat of having to close again, so Aebischer is adjusting his ordering, he says. Typically, the shop will “roll the dice” on a few higher dollar pieces when ordering, but now will need to adhere to a strict buying process while still working to meet customer needs.

“In our line of work, when you buy inventory, you obviously want to turn that,” he says. “If we continue to buy inventory, those bills are coming due. And if we’re not able to sell product, that really puts a squeeze on things.”

Operations will be tighter at Golf Headquarters as well, Thomas says, particularly with managing expenses and inventory. All efforts are being geared toward preparing for a possible second shutdown without a second stimulus, he says.

“This one obviously caught everybody by surprise,” Thomas says. “But you’ve just got to be ready for at least another four- to six-week shutdown possibly in the fall. Hopefully not, but try to game plan for that.”

“Looking ahead, they’re talking about the second wave to come during Christmas time and Black Friday,” adds Abruzere of Grey’s Boutique. “For me right now, it’s about smart buying. What do people want and what are they wearing now? Where are they going now?

“I’m living in the moment and taking it day by day to see where we are.”

Pictured at top: The reopening drew a good crowd to Southern Park Mall, says its general manager, Brian Gabbert.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.