How one small business owner is welcoming back customers
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COVID-19Rethinking retail

How one small business owner is welcoming back customers

Mt. Lebanon boutique reopens with new restrictions

Shoppers at Moxie Cloth are greeted by two signs before they enter the store.  Photo by David Rullo
Shoppers at Moxie Cloth are greeted by two signs before they enter the store. Photo by David Rullo

Two large signs sit outside Moxie Cloth, a women’s clothing and accessory boutique in Mt. Lebanon. The first states the hours the store is open and that customers can simply call for drive-by pick-up. The second lists the requirements for customers who wish to shop inside.

Before being allowed entrance into the shop, customers must stop in front of a locked door where owner Jeannie Gabbay verifies through a quick visual inspection that a face mask is worn. She then unlocks the door and takes the potential shopper’s temperature with a handheld thermometer. Finally, once inside, guests are required to place their hands under a touchless hand sanitizer dispenser. For those who may still feel uneasy shopping in a store where touch is sometimes required, Gabbay has a supply of white cotton gloves that she washes after each use.

Moxie Cloth closed March 16 due to COVID-19. It reopened on Friday, May 15, the day Gov. Tom Wolf moved Allegheny County into the yellow phase.

The Jewish retailer said she considered “what I could live with and what I couldn’t live with,” before deciding to welcome customers back.

After a process that included creating a list of pros and cons, Gabbay decided she would reopen her doors, but only after she created a new set of rules that would allow her, and her customers, to feel comfortable.

“I had to set my standards really high,” Gabbay explained. “I have a lot of customers that are immune-compromised. I had to figure out what was the highest level I could live with and still open my shop. It all came down to keeping my customers safe and keeping my family safe.”

Gabbay’s standards are more stringent than those created by the Centers for Disease Control, whose guidelines include promoting healthy hygiene practices, wearing face masks, increased cleaning and social distancing.

“After two months of being closed, coming into the shop was now a luxury,” Gabbay said. The small business owner realized that by choosing to reopen, “she could set guidelines customers would follow.”

This type of thinking is counter to the conventional wisdom ubiquitous among small business owners, Gabbay explained. While the previous mantra was “the customer is always right,” in the age of a pandemic, “that dialogue has changed. I had to let go of old retail thinking before COVID-19.”

Part of that “old retail thinking” included allowing as many people as possible into a store. Gabbay, however, is only allowing a maximum of five people in her boutique at one time and is encouraging clients to make appointments rather than stop and shop. While walk-ins are permitted — as long as they follow the new regulations — preference is given to those who have appointments.

Owner Jeannie Gabbay has reconfigured Moxie Cloth’s floor plan to promote a safe shopping experience. Photo by David Rullo

Traditionally, the psychology behind a shop’s layout is based on customers’ buying habits. More expensive products are usually placed in the front, impulse buys near the cash register. Moxie Cloth’s floor plan is now based on the ability to social distance and to help both customers and staff remain safe.

Clothing racks have been placed with space between them, encouraging shoppers to keep a minimum of six feet between one another. Gabbay has moved all of her one-size-fits-all clothing to the back of the store. “What that does is allow people not to linger and ruffle through the clothing looking for a size,” she pointed out.

Unlike other clothing stores, Moxie Cloth will allow customers to use its fitting rooms.

“I can live with that because if someone changes out of something, my steamer is parked between my two fingers. If someone decides they don’t want a garment, I steam it right away. That means, if there is any coronavirus on it, it is killed immediately,” Gabbay said.

Even with all the precautions, Gabbay knows it’s possible that one day a customer who has been infected with the virus might shop at Moxie Cloth. So she’s created a contact tracing trail.

“If anyone walks into this store, they have to give me their name and number and I record the date that they were here,” she said. “I ask them to please inform us if anything would happen. That is my responsibility. We’ve opened our doors and said people can come in. It’s a calculated risk but I can do more than a big store can.”

Gabbay also has adjusted the store’s return policy from its former 14-day period.

“For safety reasons, I cannot allow garments to be in your home for more than five days,” she said. The store will not accept returns of any items other than clothing, again to ensure the safety of both employees and customers.

“I know I can steam a garment; I cannot steam a necklace; I cannot steam jewelry or a handbag. I cannot steam scarves,” she said.

The boutique’s customers were loyal to the store during the months the shop was closed. Moxie Cloth has no website, but Gabbay used social media to engage her clients and continued to sell items through videos posted three times a week.

Like other small business owners that have decided to reopen during Allegheny County’s yellow phase, Gabbay has recognized the need to “pivot and change what retail looks like.”

“As a shop owner, it’s my duty to change rules and be as informative as possible,” she said. “The luxury is, I don’t have to do anything. I do not have to let anyone in. I didn’t have to reopen but I wanted to and so that created the loving desire to say we want to see you again.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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