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What Italy’s Small Biz Owners Can Teach Us About Reopening Stores After the Lockdown

Lynn Morrison  |  April 24, 2020

Here’s what lifting the lockdown looks like in Italy and — and eventually how stores reopening might play out in the U.S.

Taking a walk to the library would hardly be considered an extra special treat for most active young children. However, for 11-year-old Nicolò, last week marked the first time he’d been allowed outside of his home in Venice, Italy since it went into total lockdown on March 8th. 

“Gloves, masks, disinfectant and distance. These are the keys to keeping us all safe.” 

In recognition of just how hard this experience has been on the country’s youth, the Italian government gave permission for children’s clothing stores, bookstores and libraries to reopen their shop fronts first, beginning on April 14th. Nicolo’s mother, Tania, summed up the post-pandemic guidelines like this: “Gloves, masks, disinfectant and distance. These are the keys to keeping us all safe.” 

Forty miles away in Bassano del Grappa, Lorenza Manfrotto is preparing to reopen her family-run bookstore, Palazzo Roberti. This two-story independent shop has been selling books, stationery and staging events in the local area since 1998. 

The safety and health of Manfrotto’s employees and clients are top of mind, so much so that she requested a visit by Spisal, the government service which oversees preventative hygiene and security in workplaces. After spending the day with two technicians, she prepared a letter to send to all employees. Once again, the four main guidelines to reopen the store are at the forefront of her instructions.

Employees and customers must wear gloves and masks

Depending on the region, Italian citizens are either required or encouraged to wear masks and gloves when leaving the house. Manfrotto has purchased facemasks for all employees and installed hand sanitizer stations around the store and at each entrance. 

The bookstore will require customers to disinfect their gloved hands before coming inside. She notes, “We want to minimize the likelihood that they go around touching merchandise with dirty gloves.” 

Retailers are adapting to in-store social distancing requirements

Implementing social distancing measures is one of the big challenges Italian businesses are facing as they plan to reopen stores. Not only do they have to consider how many customers can safely be in the store at a time, they also have to think about their employees. 

In the case of Palazzo Roberti, the Spisal technicians recommended that employees stagger their arrival and departure times and avoid congregating in the area set aside for storing their personal items. 

Rather than outline a set of strict requirements for stores to reopen, the government is giving advice and working with businesses to determine how to protect people from one another within closed environments. For example, businesses must limit the number of people based on the square footage of their space, but they can choose whether to implement strict pathways around a shop or one-way signs for aisles. Shops can also choose to put up plexiglass barriers at pay points or to equip staff with plastic visors to cover their face. Palazzo Roberti will announce social distancing reminders in the shop every 30 minutes.

Post lockdown, working life is far from normal

Although staying open or gaining permission to reopen stores is cause for relief, some companies are being forced to reinvent the way they run business — or even overhaul the original business model. Factories are adapting shift patterns and office-based employees will continue work from home as long as possible.

In the food service industry, Diletta Scandiuzzi launched her specialty dessert business, Dilettamisù, in the fall of 2019. Her business model saw her delivering tiramisu and other creamy desserts to local cafes and restaurants, with the intention that they would be consumed on the spot. She designed her packaging to showcase well in Italy’s typical glass-front display cases. They were not meant for takeaway or delivery.

Overnight, her business model crashed. Scandiuzzi had to work fast to save her company. “Have we managed to remain open and grow our business? Yes, but in a fundamentally different way,” she says. “It took us ten nightmarish days to pivot in a new direction.” 

At Palazzo Roberti, the store inventory may be the same, but the interaction is gone.

She made two major changes to her operating model. First, she sourced entirely new containers. The multi-portion jars can be sealed during production to guarantee a level of safety to consumers. These gave her access to the takeout and delivery market. Second, she approached small food shops about stocking her desserts. “Gastronomies, bakeries and small specialty shops responded fastest to the changes [to our way of life],” Scandiuzzi says. “We’d always considered them as part of our plan, but they became our most solid opportunity.”

Even longer standing businesses have had to adjust to a new way of doing business. At Palazzo Roberti, the store inventory may be the same, but the interaction is gone. “This is not the working style to which we were accustomed. The physical connection with our readers has always been the defining characteristic of our business and our strength,” Manfrotto says. “Now it represents our largest obstacle: closeness.” 

As stores reopen there is cause for celebration

After so many weeks of lost or reduced profits, small business owners are trying to keep a positive outlook as they look to the future to reopen stores. Even though the new operating models may make it difficult or impossible to earn enough to pay the bills in the short term, it is still seen as progress. 

At Palazzo Roberti, reopening is an exciting, if challenging milestone. “We’re trying to put our worries aside and be thankful we’ve been fortunate not to lose anyone close to us,” Manfrotto says. “We remind ourselves that for our customers, it is a dream to return to our store and its familiar and welcoming environment. Everyone is very patient, open and respectful of our new rules… There is truly a great desire to return to our bookstore and to their good reading habits. This is our greatest comfort.”

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