Masks, distance and zero-contact sales are vital to reopening
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Masks, distance and zero-contact sales are vital to reopening

Two IGCs share how they plan to reopen during the ongoing pandemic.

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Throughout the month of May, many states will cautiously resume life after nearly six weeks of lockdown. While there’s zero certainty that the warmer months will slow the spread of the coronavirus, the country is eager to dip its toes into optimistic waters. Now that some states may return to socially distant economic openings, IGC owners can prepare and plan a tentative strategy. Many businesses throughout the country are taking steps to ensure employee and customer safety during this time, and Garden Center talked to two IGCs to gain some insight on the process.

At Stan’s Garden Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, Valerie Bloom, a retail associate, says the days gearing up to the IGC’s reopen date, May 1, have been busy. At Stan’s, management has modified many aspects of the customer shopping experience. Bloom says the main focus will be on social distancing practices, but they’ve also taken additional steps out of an abundance of caution.

“The lavatories will be closed, and they are bringing in portable toilets for people. We are going to have the floors clearly marked six feet apart, and they're going to have to wear their face masks,” Bloom says. “We do have different hand sanitizers, plus a hand washing station available to the customers. And every checkout will have hand sanitizers at it for them.”

On April 3, Gov. Tom Wolf strongly urged all Pennsylvanians to wear either homemade or cloth face masks in public, and many businesses are expected to heed the recommendation ahead of the state’s phased reopening.

“We have at least 5 acres under glass, we carry thousands and thousands of plants. We have over a million dollars in plant material right now, just waiting to go out to the general public,” Bloom says.

Stan’s offers a large variety of items, such as hanging baskets, vegetable plants, bare root items, edibles and year-round annuals.

“We carry a ton of product between shrubberies, trees and fruit trees. We really do carry a lot of items, so the guys are just trying to get everything really set up for the customers to start shopping, so the rush is on,” Bloom says.

She also says the IGC has been staffed by smaller-than-normal work crews, in an effort to spare costs. The staff tried to do curbside service, which worked for a few days, but the phone lines went down due to an inundation of calls.

“We try to do online, but it's very hard. You know, because some items are not ready, and some items are ready. It made life difficult, and it did not help our customers, because we've had to tell them it's not available just yet,” Bloom says.

As for Mother’s Day, Bloom says Stan’s is prepared and ready to serve its customers.

“Typically, Mother's Day is a hanging basket holiday. If you're in a garden center, everybody knows it's about the hanging baskets. COVID or non-COVID, we grew just as many — and more — hanging baskets that we've always done, and there’ll be a bountiful, plentiful supply for people,” she says.  

To better accommodate customers and make sure they don’t feel rushed, Bloom says they’re retaining their usual hours of operation schedule. That way, customers can practice proper social distancing behaviors.

“Our facility runs Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and then Sundays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. So, we've been trying to slow down some of the older people with their vegetable gardening, so they don't come in, running in like crazy,” Bloom says.

As of publication date, Erie County has 87 confirmed cases, something Bloom considers fortunate compared to other places in the country. But still, she says COVID-19’s toll on the business is very bad.

“No one has provisions for something like this, we're all so used to having cures for everything. You expect to go to the doctor and have results in a day, or a week. You don't think it's going to happen months down the road and still not know how to combat this virus,” she says.

Coppola’s Garden Center, located in South Plainfield, New Jersey, is also preparing to reopen. A general manager, who wished to remain anonymous, shared that the IGC has taken serious precautions to ensure a safe reopening.

“We're not letting anybody in our store. We built outdoor cash registers that are under our overhang, with complete plexiglass shields about 8-feet high. Our cashiers are completely enclosed, so there's no direct contact with the customers,” he says. “We actually got innovative. We slip the receipt through a dryer vent, so it closes one way and you slip the receipt through there. We're not accepting cash at this time, just credit card only.”

Coppola’s has put up many signs that remind customers to keep their distance and to wear their masks, and they’ve also placed line markers to ensure customers are six feet apart. The IGC is located in Middlesex County, and of publication date, the county had 11,102 confirmed coronavirus cases. Gov. Phil Murphy requires all citizens in the state of New Jersey to wear a face covering “when shopping at essential retail businesses, entering a restaurant or bar to pick up takeout orders, and when traveling on trains, buses, light rail, or paratransit vehicles.”

“We're a family business, and we're going over-the-top extreme for safety,” he says. He is hopeful that Mother’s Day is profitable, but says sales remain uncertain. Along with the pandemic, he says New Jersey experienced bad weather throughout the month of April. However, he’s hopeful.