Canadian Music Trade - In Depth

REOPENING DURING THE PANDEMIC: Tips, Considerations & Resources to Bring Customers Back

The article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.

By Michael Raine

Most MI retailers reading this have already reopened in some capacity. But as you may have realized, it’s not all going to be a seamless process back to “normal.” All commercial businesses are in a process of constant learning right now, adjusting as they go and trying to figure out what works for owners, employees, and customers with regards to both business and safety. For retailers as much as anyone, these are strange and difficult times.

“I’m not sure what we expected, to be honest with you, but as we started looking at the increasing number of cases and the increased number of unfortunate deaths, we realized that it would take longer,” begins Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada, thinking back to the early days of business shutdowns in March. “Governments, even if they didn’t shut down all of the businesses, asked consumers to stay home and isolate. So, we also understood at that point when we were monitoring the situation across the country that it would take longer to reopen. You don’t just shut down for two months and reopen and everything goes back to normal.”

Things certainly aren’t normal and will not be for a long time. Stores are reopening across the country, but every province has strict government-mandated rules about physical distancing and disinfecting stores. And on top of those rules, there are others that are highly recommended and that are becoming the norm for retailers who want to show customers and employees that they’re taking their safety seriously.

The course of action provinces took to combat the spread of COVID-19 differed quite a lot. British Columbia, for instance, never closed retail stores entirely, instead instating strict safety guidelines that they all must follow. Most other provinces shut down all retailers except those considered essential, like grocery stores and pharmacies. Then, in terms of reopening, every province is following a different schedule and multi-phase format.

“Of course, the thing most provinces have really been trying to hammer home is that stores are responsible for maintaining social distancing in the workplace. That matters for a retailer because it’s both your employees and also your customers, so there’s a bit of an added oversight and expectation from business owners as they start welcoming people back in,” explains Ryan Mallough, the director of provincial affairs in Ontario for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB). “The most restrictive one that I’ve seen so far is Manitoba, which has been very clear on what it means. The approach there is it is the lesser of 50% capacity or one person per 10 sq. m. They have a pretty spelled-out guideline. Most provinces are going with [the vaguer guideline of ] ‘being able to reasonably maintain 2 m of social distancing.’ So, I think people realize that at, say, the grocery store, as much as we’re not supposed to pass someone or get within 2 m of them, it’s still something that happens. I don’t think that anyone is going to be penalized for that, but the expectation is that if you are open to customers, that you are able to maintain that social distancing in addition to frequently wiping down high-traffic surface areas.”

As well, some provinces are making signage mandatory that reminds customers and employees about the rules.

“Make no mistake; your store still has to look good, and the problem is that most music stores are narrow and deep. So, how do you get 6-ft. distancing if your aisles are 4 ft.?” notes Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor based in New York, who is also a regular NAMM U speaker. “The only way to do that is to have one way through the store and that’s going to take a lot of work because you aren’t set up that way. You know, some will go, ‘Well we’ve always had the counter here on the right!’ Well, I guess you should move the damn counter. Remember, you’re not going to tell people to go in on the left of the store. In North America, that’s not how we enter a store. We always go in on the right and go counter-clockwise. That’s how we do it. You force me to go in on the left, it’s just not going to feel right for anybody.”

Another main concern for governments, for obvious reasons, is sterilization. If stores become hotbeds for infection and the spread of COVID-19, they’re going to be shut down pretty quickly. To avoid this, customers and employees can’t be constantly touching the same possibly-infected surfaces. Unfortunately for MI retailers, music stores are pretty hands-on environments; naturally, musicians want to try out all those enticing instruments! But is this allowed? Yes and no. Testing out instruments can still be done, but it certainly cannot be done in the same casual, hassle-free way we’re used to.

“We need to have an area that is cordoned off where you can be socially-distant while you’re trying an instrument. It could also be things like you have hand sanitizer that the customer must use first and then a store employee is going to bring the instrument,” suggests Sally Seston, managing director of Retail Category Consultants. “If it’s an instrument that requires a mouthpiece, like an oboe or trumpet, you may be required to bring your own mouth piece, or you have to purchase an inexpensive one.”

“In most cases, we are telling our retailers that if they have sample products, then first of all, they should only have sample products and not have their entire inventory accessible,” adds Brisebois from the Retail Council. “Also, that it be in a section of the store with signage where the customer is informed that they can handle that specific product, but that the moment they are done, the product it will be sanitized in a safe way.”

Brisebois notes that they’ve been learning a lot from retailers in other countries that have been reopened longer. For example, in South Korean stores, she’s seen three-walled booths set up for demoing products. Only one customer can be in a demo booth at a time, and when they’re done, the instrument goes back on a stand in the booth. When they leave the booth, an employee goes in, sanitizes both the booth and the product, and the product is then set aside for a couple hours or so before being made available again.

“The challenge for music stores – as for apparel or jewelry or footwear – is that they will have to train their employees and, for a period of time, they’ll need to have dedicated employees who handle the sampling and sanitizing of products. That’s probably what we’re going to see more and more of,” Brisebois predicts, adding that ample signage explaining the demoing protocol will be necessary.

There are, of course, many other protocols that retailers large and small are opting to follow that aren’t mandated by the government. The most common may be requiring all customers and employees entering the store to wear a mask. Some, though fewer, also require gloves.

According to Phibbs, really, the very first thing retailers need to have is a plan, and then they need to communicate that plan. Which new protocols do you have to implement, such as social distancing and disinfecting? How are you going to implement them? Then what other non-mandatory protocols do you want to implement to show that you’re taking people’s safety – both customers and employees – seriously?

“Whatever it is, you have to have a plan. What’s your plan? You’re going to make sure you have plexiglass between the student and the instructor? Okay, we can do that. You’re going to put clear shower curtains between all the departments so there’s no cross contamination? Okay, that’s cool. Or, ‘This is what we’re going to do – no mask, no shirt, no service. That’s going to be hard and fast and that’s our thing.’ Whatever your procedures are, write them down,” Phibbs says. “Then you have a meeting with your crew and say what you’re going to do. Then you ask them for all their what-ifs and make sure their needs are met. Because they’re going to say, ‘But what about this?’ and you have to take it seriously, because these are your employees and your associates. Once you’ve done that meeting, have them sign it and say, ‘This is what I am going to do.’”

Once the new plan is in place, communicating it with customers is also essential.
Phibbs recommends checking out a YouTube video by Third Rock Music Center in
Cincinnati, OH that’s simply called “Third Rock Music Center is Open!” It’s a friendly video with the co-owners thanking customers who shopped online and did curbside pickup while the store was closed, and then explaining what the new safety rules are, the new hours, etc. It’s also worth watching just to gain a few ideas from what they’re doing, like asking customers to put the guitar back on the hanger backwards after they’ve tried it so staff know which instruments need to be sterilized, or always leaving lesson room doors open to reduce shared contact surfaces.

“That should be on your social media and website and be reposted a lot so that people aren’t freaked out when they come in,” Phibbs says. “Put all your rules up front, restate it, and just know that there’s going to be some weird things you’re going to have to deal with it. But there’s near-term weird, and then there’s long-term. Near-term is the stuff that is probably the spookiest because it’s masks and gloves, etc. The danger is a music store becoming more like a medical office where you’re wearing surgical masks. So, I say make sure you go to Etsy or something and get some plain black masks with everybody’s first names on them so it doesn’t look so creepy.”

As well, as alluded to before, updated training is needed for many employees, both with regards to new safety considerations and also sales training.

“How should you be handling merchandise or handling it differently? How do we have to keep the store clean and safe, not only after closing but also throughout the day? They need to be trained in all of those procedures, but they also need to be trained in how to speak to and deal with customers who are being inconsiderate of others by not following the rules,” advises Seston. “They also possibly need some training and reinforcement on how to make people feel welcome in the store. Just because we need to social distance and just because we need to wear face masks and work a little bit differently and customers can’t just reach out and touch and try everything, it doesn’t mean that they can’t feel welcome in the store.”

To that point, Phibbs says sales training is more essential than ever. On top of everything else, this is not an easy time to sell things. Just because people are allowed to go in-store shopping again doesn’t mean they’re comfortable enough to do so yet, and the suddenly-high unemployment rate means there are fewer disposable dollars in people’s pockets and their priorities have changed.

“Your goal is to be the gold standard of sanitization, but also customer service. That asked-and-answered retail has got to go away,” he says.

What Phibbs means by “asked-and-answered retail” is when a salesperson essentially answers the questions asked and that is it. As he explains it, it’s: “‘Can I help you with anything?’ ‘I need guitar strings.’ ‘Over there – anything else?’ ‘No.’ I did my job. Dude, you did nothing!”

When there are fewer people shopping to begin with, and on top of that you’re having to limit the number of people in the store, every dollar needs to be fought for – and be grateful for those dollars you get.

“What we’re noticing in a lot of other industries is, because they don’t have sales training, what’s flying off the shelves is all the entry-level product because it doesn’t take anything to sell it. The problem is, at [high-end] music stores, a $10,000 flute isn’t going to sell itself,” Phibbs emphasizes. “The thing is that with all that’s gone on, your mindset is: ‘I’m opening a brand-new business.’ It’s not that you’re reopening; the easiest thing to do is unlock the door. The hard thing is that you might be used to a $7,000 Saturday and instead you might get a $700 Saturday and you’re going to have to be grateful for that. And yeah, we all hope it’s going to come back as a V and go skyrocketing, but it might be a U.”

One of the other challenges retailers are facing as they reopen is inventory and merchandising. The sudden two-month shutdown threw all the usual seasonal ordering cycles out the window. According to Brisebois, a lot of retailers are not only concerned about the health of their own businesses and their own inventory, but also the health of their vendors.

“Our retailers were saying, ‘Great, I am going to try to reopen, but I am now also concerned about the health of my vendors and will my previous supply chain still be intact?’ How do I help and how do I work with these vendors who may be struggling? Because this ecosystem is important for all of us,” she notes. In the coming months, retailers and their vendors will need to find new ways to help each other.

“The reality is you’re going to have a lot of merchandise you bought for the spring or a specific promotion that’s going to be dated. So, how do we get rid of that? The big thing is, if I was a music store, you need to move the whole thing around. I mean that literally,” instructs Phibbs. “If you had the amps on the front right, then that’s where guitars are or wind instruments or sheet music go. The danger is if you go back and the store looks the same. Retail exists to answer people’s question, ‘What’s new?’ That could be what’s new to me, not necessarily what’s new from the manufacturer. So realizing that you’ve cut your orders for two or three months at least, you have to sell what you have, but it can still be refreshed.”

That said, one thing music retailers can be thankful for is that their products are more evergreen than, say, clothes. All the retail experts we spoke with brought up how clothing retailers are all having rock-bottom sales to offload their out-of-season stock.

“What I think is interesting, particularly in the music business, is it’s actually a time of great opportunity,” says Seston in closing. She is not trying to sugar-coat how tough things are right now for MI dealers or anyone else in the retail sector, but what she means is there’s less competition for “pastime dollars,” so to speak, with kids’ sports and summer camps shut down. “So, parents who’ve been stuck at home with their kids since March and will likely be stuck at home with them over the summer… so it’s actually a time of great opportunity for those merchants because there may be more of an interest in something like an instrument where they can learn one-on-one and there’s a great deal you can do through video conferencing and such to teach them.”

Nonetheless, “let’s make no mistake,” cautions Phibbs. “Most music retailers weren’t exactly swimming in money. Then, being closed for two months, yeah online might’ve helped them a little bit and DJ and electronic instruments are up a little bit, but it’s going to be a tough slog and you’re going to have to fight to win this. You’re really going to need a different mindset about getting back in business.”

Provincial Rules & Enforcement

In this article, we’re not running through all the government-mandated rules and
recommendations that retailers must follow. For one, it would take up too much space. And two, they’re evolving quickly as regions move through their multi-phase plans for reopening the economy and make changes on-the-fly based on feedback from businesses and groups like the CFIB and Retail Council.

“My biggest recommendation on all of this for a retailer is to get well-acquainted with your own provincial rules, and once you do, give your local officials a call and see what’s being enforced on the ground as well so you have a good understanding of what it is that you need to be doing,” advises Mallough from the CFIB.

He says that most provinces say they’re taking an education-first approach to enforcement of the rules, meaning inspectors will tell business owners what changes are needed and give them time to implement them.

“That being said, in Ontario, the labour minister did say that the fines for noncompliance will be about $750 per ticket,” Mallough says, adding that there have been issues with enforcement being inconsistent. “Part of the reason for that is that so many different levels are doing enforcement, from local police to [provincial police] to local bylaw enforcement, health officers, and labour inspectors. We’ve heard several issues where someone says, ‘A bylaw officer told me this but then the local police told me the opposite, so who am I supposed to follow?’ So, we’re watching for that very closely as businesses reopen because we want to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.”

So, again, make sure you’re very familiar with the local and provincial regulations for reopening. Most provincial and municipal governments have the guidelines easily discoverable on their websites.

The Retail Council also keeps an up-to-date guide of provincial COVID regulations on its website. As well, the CFIB has a small business help line – 1-888-234-2232 – to answer such questions.

Then, call local officials to make sure your interpretation is the same as theirs and you know how the rules are being enforced.

Resources to Guide & Simplify Your Reopening

Retail Council of Canada’s COVID-19 Resource Centre

Go to

Here, you will find:
• The comprehensive RCC & Boston Consulting Group Retail Recovery
Playbook (free download)
• The RCC’s Retail Recovery checklists & templates (free download)
• Current province-specific, government-mandated health & safety requirements
for retailers
• Province-specific information on commercial property tax & utility relief

Instrument Cleaning & Disinfection Guide

Following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), NAfME, and The
NAMM Foundation have created a guide for handling and disinfecting musical instruments. This includes what types of disinfecting products are safe for specific instruments and parts. It also provides cleaning and disinfecting advice for specific instruments and parts.

To download the free guide as a PDF, go to

COVID-19 Advice from The Retail Doctor

On his blog, Bob Phibbs is offering a great deal of advice for retailers specific to doing business during COVID-19. Some of the topics he has tackled include: “Reopening Retail Stores - Tell Shoppers What’s Changed Before Arrival,” “It’s Up to Retailers to Destroy the Doom and Gloom Narrative,” and “10 Reasons to be Optimistic About Retail After COVID-19.”

Go to You can also sign up for his newsletter for regular and timely retail advice.

CFIB Back to Business Kit

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) has released a free, downloadable Back to Business Kit based on feedback from its members and customized to each province’s specific regulations. The kit contains: best practices for your business; answers to frequently asked questions; posters and templates, including an operational plan, welcome back sign, and letter to recall employees; and more. The CFIB is also offering free temporary membership, which features
personalized answers and advice from its helpline, access to webinars, and up-to-date information and curated weekly news.

To download the kit and get a free membership, go to

Author image
Michael Raine is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician, Canadian Music Trade, Professional Sound, and Professional Lighting & Production magazines. He also hosts the Canadian Musician Podcast.
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