Service with a smile: Reopening retailers see benefits to slow rollout

Retailers” width=
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Some Los Altos merchants were more prepared than others to shift to a virtual operation model. Specialty gift store Present, above, sold local goods online before the pandemic hit.

Retail shops deemed “nonessential” in Los Altos were prohibited from operating out of their storefronts for nearly 10 weeks due to the pandemic. When the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department allowed them to reopen Friday (May 22), they did so under several conditions.

But after months of declining sales and shipping frustrations, many merchants are excited to unlock their front doors, prepare their curbside pickup stations and get to work.

Necessary steps

The county’s latest revisions to its shelter-in-place order loosen restrictions on retail, manufacturing, distribution and other temporarily shuttered industries and activities – with stipulations:

• Retail shops may reopen but must process transactions outside because no customers are allowed inside.
• Stores may not showcase their products outside.
• Customers must have direct access to a sidewalk, street, outdoor walkway, parking lot or alley for pickup, or else the store does not qualify for partial reopening under the new order.
• The number of employees allowed to work in a store at one time is limited to one per 300 square feet of retail space.

Easing retail stores back into business rather than allowing them to reopen altogether is not just a sensible approach, but the preferred course, according to several Los Altos shop owners.

“We will make (the conditions) work because every careful step gets us back to normal sooner,” Present Los Altos co-owner Jim Daley said.

Nature Gallery owner Carol Garsten is using the transition time to plan ahead for when customers are allowed inside her State Street shop once again. She has considered placing a plastic barrier between her and clients when they cannot be 6 feet apart, such as when they are trying on jewelry or paying for merchandise.

Interior designer Sherry Scott’s Main Street shop sells both small and large home furnishing products, but Sherry Scott Design is still “nonessential,” as defined by the order. Because home remodeling activity halted for two months, Scott had no sales during that time. A recent order of six chairs from a repeat customer has been her only transaction. Still, she favors the slow rollout of services in the wake of COVID-19.

“When we are permitted to open our store … we will let only one customer group in at a time, monitor what they touch, wiping those things down with disinfectant afterward,” she said. “I'll also offer to pick up and show them the items myself, or our staff will do that, instead of the customer touching it, which should provide another way to keep them safer. This will be our protocol until there is a vaccine, a treatment or there are no new cases circulating in Northern California.”

Learning curve

Some merchants were more prepared than others to shift to a virtual operation model. The Girls of Los Altos, a children’s clothing store on State Street, already had steady online sales, owner Cecilia Chen said. Present, the specialty gift store on Main Street, also sold local goods online before the pandemic hit, Daley added.

But Garsten’s Nature Gallery and Belinda Chung’s BK Collections on State Street had not established e-commerce options. In the first few weeks following the lockdown, they worked to establish a revenue stream but have made just a fraction of what they normally do.

“A lot of downtown businesses are learning about online sales,” Chung said. “We have a website/e-commerce, but sales are very minimal because we are new at this.”

Garsten said there have been weeks with no sales at all.

Even those with websites faced roadblocks. Chen said an increase in online orders meant greater challenges to efficiently meet demand. In addition, shipping services are not as reliable as they used to be for retailers, she noted. Still, for safety’s sake, Chen said she would rather have customers who are not in a rush to receive her products continue to order through the website.

“We firmly believe the social-distancing protocol is not an option, it’s a must,” she said. “Every business and every customer should follow the requirement strictly. When we are taking care of ourselves, we are taking care of each other. Even though we are providing curbside pickup service, we strongly recommend customers use our online services if it’s not super urgent.”

Prompted to promote

All of the shops mentioned opened Friday for curbside pickup and will continue to offer free shipping on their online orders; BK Collections requires an order of $50 and Present an order of $75 to meet the free shipping criteria.

The merchants feel a push to come up with offers that entice customers back. The Girls of Los Altos is taking an additional 10% off both curbside and delivery orders and adding new inventory, Chen said, with the hope that most families will not be traveling over the summer and should have a way to “enjoy their staycation more.”

BK Collections now sells face masks and sanitizing lotions.

“People need to feel safe before coming to shop,” Chung said. “Keeping them informed is important.”

Nature Gallery will offer some gift-with-purchase promotions and email list signup drawings once the shop is open to customers. More promotions are in the works, Garsten said.

For a comprehensive list of retailers operating online, visit Retailers wishing to be added to the list or update their information should email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Schools »

Read More

Sports »

Read More

People »

Read More

Special Sections »

Special Sections
Read More

Photos of Los Altos

Browse and buy photos