As stores and restaurants begin phased reopenings, large gathering places like shopping malls are taking new approaches to ensure their customers’ safety. The Village of Rochester Hills is an open-air mall that holds over 40 stores and nine dining options, and its leaders have created new safety guidelines in compliance with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders.
The Village stayed open during the pandemic given that the Whole Foods store located within the mall was an essential service. Restaurants were able to offer curbside pickup as well. Other stores at The Village are reopening rapidly, though some stores, particularly locally-owned shops and exercise studios, remain closed.
As the mall navigates business during the pandemic, Hour Detroit spoke with Scott Aikens, vice chairman of The Village of Rochester Hills, about how the mall stayed connected to the community during the pandemic, what measures they’ve implemented to keep people safe, and how shopping is different during COVID-19.
Hour Detroit: What were some ways stores and restaurants in The Village of Rochester Hills responded to the news of the pandemic?
Scott Aikens: I think that everyone was responding to the research on the pandemic as it was emerging. At first, there really wasn’t much information on how it was spread but I think people were much more cautious. And then over time, as information has come out, the corporate leadership in all these companies were able to come up with a protocol appropriate for doing business.
The Village hosted a digital #MarchIsReadingMonth event and #RemoteLearning projects on Facebook during the earlier months of the pandemic. Why did you decide to do that?
Communities were looking for information, and everyone was online on social media. We wanted to continue to [contribute] to the community online. We had community leaders such as Mayor Bryan Barnett and the fire chief reading books from Barnes and Noble.
When did the stores start reopening?
It was all in conjunction with what Governor Whitmer was decreeing through her orders. Whole Foods was open the entire time, the restaurants were doing curbside [pickup] pretty much the entire time, but a couple of local ones flat-out closed. The stores were shut until the governor was allowing curbside. And then we put in a signage infrastructure and we called it “Retail-To-Go,” instead of our one-hour parking signs.
What measures have you implemented to keep customers safe?
We put many hand-sanitizing stations around the Village, we removed benches, and created more spacing amongst our seating. Of course, we constantly are cleaning and re-cleaning all the outdoor facilities. We’ve removed some of the playground equipment and put down grass to create a space for people to enjoy the facilities. We also have signage packages that [talk] about wearing a mask where appropriate and social distancing rules. Many of [our stores] have implemented first-in-class protocols themselves. Some stores are giving out masks when you go in…if you don’t have [one]. Many [stores] have plexiglass partitions at the registers. The nail salon is putting up clear shower curtain dividers around each pedicure station.
How do you plan to enforce the new safety measures?
We have a strong security program — we have folks on the ground walking the mall. We’re outdoors, so we’re like a town. [The safety measures] are, for the most part… fairly kind of commonsensical. We can create suggestions. We’re really there to serve our stores, and the stores hand out their own sets of rules… but we have a lot of signage and that’s kind of how we do it.
How does the shopping experience look during the pandemic?
I think that it depends store to store. Lululemon Athletica has been having a line around the corner, so they still have large numbers of people using the store. Eight people at a time are allowed in the store. They have this app where you can use a QR code and go to other stores, and then the app will ping you when [it is your turn to go in], or you can do appointment shopping. So, there’s a lot of innovations. Evereve has this program where you can pick 10 items, and then you can go home and try them on and keep the ones you want to keep. What we’re finding is that traffic may be going down overall, but…the people are very targeted [in their shopping].
How does the number of people that are shopping at the Village of Rochester Hills right now compare to this time last year?
I’d say our car traffic might be down 10-20 percent, but the ratio of purchases would be way up to 95 percent, something like that. Not that we have those exact numbers, but everyone that is going there is buying something. I think it’s doing pretty well.
How does it feel for you to have most of the stores open now?
I think it’s great, again, it’s a comfortable environment. You can stroll down the street, not even go into the store, just enjoying the outside. If you need to pop into a store, you feel that there’s a safety protocol there. It gives people the happiness to be able to go out into a public venue where they feel safe.
For more information about The Village of Rochester Hills and its safety protocols during COVID-19, click here.