In the not-so-distant future, our corona-closed world will gradually re-open, allowing New Jersians the freedom to shop out, to dine in and to basically do anything that’s not based in our living rooms.
To most the liberation may seem like the end of World War II and in many ways it is, but there are some catches to this re-opening; changes in protocols and attitudes that will make our new-found freedom seem like a very different world.
No, you don’t need Nostradamus to predict our upcoming new normal when you have me, a Jersey boy, sheltering in place in Atlanta. Georgia has been opening their economy for the last couple weeks, starting with bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and movie theaters and gradually including retail establishments, salons and in-restaurant seating.
You may judge Georgia on their choices to re-open when they did, but regardless of the when, it’s the result that’s interesting. What’s happening in an Atlanta mall is a good preview of what to expect when shopping in the Garden State.
Perimeter Mall, north of Downtown Atlanta, is about the size of The Mall at Short Hills, featuring four anchor department stores including Macy’s and Nordstrom. They also have a Cheesecake Factory and a Capital Grille, making this location a great test-run for Jersey Boy jonesing for some much-needed retail therapy.
A New Welcome
The main entrance of the mall includes signage with a variety of new post-shutdown standard operating procedures, including mandatory mask-wearing for shoppers and staff and a request that if you’re not feeling well to kindly go home.
The signage states that PPE is complimentary at Mall Security and reiterates the necessity to sport a mask. The welcome continues when you enter Macy’s from the mall entrance, as they have similar signage posted as well as a table with bottles of hand sanitizer for use.
Reality: Out of the 70 fellow shoppers spotted, only 10% were wearing masks. Mall Security was nowhere to be found to enforce the rule regarding PPE. Perhaps worse, some employees of both department stores and specialty shops weren’t adhering to the mask rule either. If you place value in PPE and the rules of wearing it, your shopping experience will be frustrating because of those who don’t.
Not Everything is Open
Out of the 143 stores in Perimeter Mall, fewer than 10% were open for business. Most closed stores had signs explaining that they were to be closed indefinitely. Some retailers, like J.Crew and Banana Republic, had additional signage reminding shoppers that they were open 24/7 online and to shop in that manner.
Nordstrom sported similar signs about shopping online, as was the only anchor not re-opened. This San Francisco-based retailer has yet to open in any market and has announced plans to close 16 stores, including their location at Freehold Raceway Mall.
Reality: If you’re expecting an immediate, full retail experience identical prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, you’ll be disappointed. The good news is that it appears curbside pickup on online purchases isn’t going anywhere, so you can have the assortment you want from the retailers you like.
Everything is Spotless
The maintenance staff of Perimeter Mall is without question the hardest working people in DeKalb County. The place was spotless and you can see staff cleaning as you walk through the mall. In addition, hand sanitizer stations are located everywhere, and the lemony scent was nothing less than amazing.
Reality: When cleanliness is the brightest highlight and the only thing you want to buy is their brand of hand sanitizer, you know this isn’t a great shopping experience.
Trying it On and Checking it Out
Jeff Gennette, the CEO of Macy’s, laid out its reopening strategy and protocols in an April 29 presentation and their Perimeter Park location is operating exactly how he specified. You may try on clothing, except men may not try on dress shirts, and bra fittings aren’t available until further notice.
The cosmetics and fragrances departments are operating as a non-touch zone with the testers and color samples removed. Shopping for these items requires assistance from a sales associate — no exception.
Some retailers have similar if not identical policies. However, a few have temporarily eliminated the option of trying on clothing and footwear.
Reality: If you’re into makeup, hopefully you know your color palette and like it enough not to deviate from it for a while. As other cosmetic retailers like Sephora and Ulta reopen, it will be interesting to see how cosmetics are merchandised and sampled.
As for dress shirts, men should know their neck and sleeve size before shopping and hope they measured correctly.
As any New Jersian knows, customer service at Macy’s is hit-and-miss at best. While in the store, I spotted only a handful of associates, most of which were in the cosmetics department. There were three employees in the men’s department — one was maskless as he sold a pair of shoes and the other two hid behind their masks, not making eye contact, not offering a welcome nor asking if help was needed.
Reality: If finding someone to sell you a toaster prior to the shutdown was a challenge, you might find yourself feeling like Tom Hanks without the volleyball.
Grabbing a Bite Isn’t so Easy
If your newfound freedom includes checking out the offerings of the food court, you might be disappointed. Of the 27 restaurants and coffee shops available, only eight were open, including Chick-fil-A, Sbarro and Shake Shack.
When it comes to food court seating, about 50% of the tables are out of bounds, marked with large tape to signify their closure.
Same goes for larger restaurants outside of the food court. Dine-in restaurants like Cheesecake Factory, Shake Shack and Maggiano’s Little Italy were all open for both curbside pickup and dine-in, with tables marked unavailable in order to foster social distancing.
Reality: Your best bet to cure an empty stomach is to take advantage of being there and simply order curbside pickup.
Left Holding the Shopping Bag
Overall, the major takeaway from this shopping experience was one of sincere disappointment. If you’re expecting a fun-filled afternoon shopping at one of New Jersey's many beautiful malls, you need to go into it knowing that it will be nothing like your shopping experiences of days gone by.
The brick-and-mortar shopping experience was of compromised health prior to COVID-19, and it’s fair to say the disease has left them permanently affected, if not fatally.
Now’s a good time to set up that Amazon Prime account.