Enter at your own risk: Inside Nordstrom’s and Saks’ NYC flagships on reopening day

New York City entered Phase 2 on Monday, allowing retailers abiding by safety guidelines to open their doors to customers. On Wednesday, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue took advantage of the opportunity via their flagships in Columbus Circle and on Fifth Avenue, respectively. Late afternoon on Wednesday, I took a tour of both stores to check out the new experience and see if shoppers — including myself — were ready to go to town. The big takeaway: Stores are taking precautions, but you can’t count on them to follow their own rules. 

The trip to Nordstrom marked my first post-quarantine outing. I entered wearing a mask and holding a handbag stocked with sanitizer, and I kept my distance — for the most part. While maneuvering around aisles in the beauty department, I found myself within six feet of a few employees, and many seemed OK with coming within six feet of each other. All wore masks. 

Throughout the store, the shopper-to-associate ratio was decidedly lopsided: It was 3-to-10 in the beauty department; 1-to-6 on the bottom floor, which houses kids’ clothes; and 3-to-8 in the shoe department. The common greeting by associates across all departments was, “Thank you for coming in!” paired with squinty eyes to show they were smiling. A male associate in the shoe department added spirit fingers.

The floor dedicated to beauty services was roped off, and restaurants were closed. A main floor section of the store that held a Glossier pop-up last year was dedicated to returns. 

Despite store signage stating that Nordstrom holds “tried on or returned merchandise for a period of time before putting it back on the sales floor,” and screens in fitting rooms reading, “We clean and sanitize dressing rooms after each use,” nothing indicated that this was, in fact, happening. Though I was let into a fitting room to try on a pair of Levi’s, nobody was around when I came out and I plopped the jeans back on their rack. To ensure it wasn’t a fluke, I tried on a pair of Topshop jeans on another floor. Same thing, except I let myself into the fitting room. 

When asked about the social distancing and fitting room issues, John Bailey, Nordstrom’s head of NYC PR, sent the following statement: “The health and wellbeing of our customers and employees is our priority and we have a number of guidelines in place to ensure we’re offering a safe experience in our stores. We’re concerned to hear about your recent experience and are following up with our store teams now.”

All registers had boards of plexiglass in front of them, with prompts to text a number to access a cardless payment option. An associate in the handbag department pointed me to a stand holding sanitizer and masks, after I picked up a Staud bag and started fishing for my own sanitizer. In the beauty department, an associate was helping a customer in front of a wall of MAC lipstick testers. The associate was managing the lipstick tubes, swiping them on tissues to show the color.

Comparatively, Saks Fifth Avenue was more overwhelming — for someone fresh from quarantine, anyway — thanks to louder music and a more crowded first floor. Despite an abundance of associates on the floor, the signs did all the talking. A vertical sign at the entrance stated the typical guidelines for shoppers, including wearing a mask. “Don’t have one? Ask an associate,” it said. It also stated that, along with thorough cleanings multiple times a day, “additional safety measures for dressing rooms, beauty areas and registers” were being taken. Yellow signs on the floor of escalator entrances read, “Please maintain a social distance of three steps,” while signs next to elevators stated that they’re reserved for certain people, including senior citizens and those with health concerns.  

According to a statement released by Saks, it’s installed UV  handrail cleaners on all escalators throughout the store. It’s reportedly been forced to limit store capacity to 5,500, though it doesn’t see that many shoppers on even the busiest shopping day of the year, according to Marc Metrick, Saks Fifth Avenue’s president.

Saks has made a promise similar to other retailers, in regard to quarantining clothes that have been tried on. When I tried on an Andamane dress, I could have easily snuck into a dressing room, had I been able to find it. I asked an associate where to find one, and she led me to a room after grabbing a wet wipe, which she used to quickly swipe the keyless entry pad (the fitting room door was open) and the three wall-mounted racks in the room. When I was done, I walked out of the room and returned the dress to the rack; nobody looked my way. When asked about the situation, a Saks representative replied with the press release about the opening, which merely specifies “enhanced cleaning protocols and regular sanitization” of fitting rooms.

Registers for pick-ups and returns featured plexiglass barriers, while checkout registers did not. I spotted a couple cardboard Purell stands at entrances, which looked out of place next to Goyard displays. 

There were also a great deal of sale racks, which is where many shoppers congregated. At Saks, signs for a designer sale read, “Take an additional 25% off for up to 70% off.” Back at Nordstrom, an associate asked about my favorite designers, as “all designers” were offering styles for 60% off. I should shop the sales now before the store picks up, she said. 

Both of the stores were well-stocked with in-season merchandise, which was surprising considering department stores’ rampant order cancellations with brands.

Throughout my shopping trip, there were hints that the trend in China of “revenge spending,” after months of being denied the opportunity to shop, was taking shape: In a span of nine blocks, I passed three people holding large orange Louis Vuitton shopping bags. In Saks Fifth Avenue, the Louis Vuitton shop-in-shop was admitting one shopper per associate; I patiently waited until one of the three shoppers checked out. At 7:00 p.m., when Saks should have been closing, three female friends were finalizing Prada purchase decisions, and a man was walking out of the Fendi shop carrying a large bag. At Nordstrom, more people were shopping designer shoes than browsing sale racks.

Of course, not every retailer is ready to fire up the cash register. A walk down Fifth Avenue from Central Park showed the range of stages retailers are actually at right now, while also serving as a reminder of the world-changing events that have gone down since March: The storefronts of many that were boarded up to deter looters following George Floyd’s death and protests were still covered in plywood, including  Coach, Hollister and Victoria’s Secret. Busts in Bulgari’s windows had been stripped of their necklaces, no doubt another safety precaution. Gucci’s windows featured head-to-toe outfits wrapped in plastic wrap, a nod to the new, ultra sanitary norm. The windows of Zara, which has limited hours, were stamped with “Welcome back!”

Otherwise, there were window signs stating stores’ new policies. Bulgari broke it down into “What to expect from us” and “What we can expect from you,” including, “If you are feeling unwell or have a fever, please do not enter.” Dolce & Gabbana went a couple steps further, asking shoppers to “Avoid shaking hands or engaging in any unnecessary physical contact,” and to use contactless payment options. Other signs stated that retailers (Bergdorf Goodman, Cartier) are now appointment-only, along with reservation information. Uniqlo, St. John and Bergdorf Goodman were still promoting their curbside pick-up or delivery offerings.

“Some people just aren’t ready to put the mask on and go into stores themselves,” said Stephen Yalof, COO and president of Tanger Factory Outlet Centers. Tanger owns 39 open-air malls in the U.S., with stores like Saks Off Fifth. On Tuesday, it launched a “virtual shopper concierge service” meant to mimic the in-store experience.

At his properties, which started reopening in early May, foot traffic is building every day, he said. “Shoppers are definitely going to come back.”

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