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Watch now: When stores reopen, just about everything will be different

Paper arts stores like Buffalo Stamps & Stuff are an endangered species in the digital age. Owner Sharon Klima has kept the Amherst store viable for 30 years by offering personal classes and creating a touch-and-feel haven for crafters and artists.

"I pride myself on everything being hands on. We have a huge inventory to see and touch. There are tons of samples everywhere," she said. "When people come in for the first time, they're overwhelmed because there's eye candy everywhere."

Now, that will all have to change as Klima and retailers across New York prepare to reopen under a lengthy list of new state rules governing cleaning, protective equipment, screening and physical distancing to fight coronavirus.

That means stores will look significantly different when they reopen than they did when they were ordered to close two months ago. Some of it will be familiar to shoppers from their visits to supermarkets during the pandemic.

For starters, interactive displays and pawing at merchandise will be discouraged in favor of a more hygienic experience. Makeup counters will no longer have "try me" samples. And changing rooms? Trying on clothes before you buy them could be a thing of the past.

Shoppers will not likely feel free to wander as they please while browsing. Arrows will direct customers which way to travel through narrow aisles, keeping a safe distance among shoppers by designating one-way traffic zones in certain areas.

Return counters could disappear to make room for a more spacious sales floor.

As stores try to minimize contact and the possibility of taking in contaminated goods, return policies are likely to change. Customers might be required to handle returns online or via an app or opt not to accept returns at all. Stores can set any return policy they want as long as it's advertised prominently in the store. Essential stores such as Wegmans and Tops have already suspended returns and refunds at stores.

Store hours could change without notice. That's because, if a worker is suspected or found to have Covid-19, and if the area where the employee worked cannot be partitioned off, the store must be shuttered for cleaning.

One change that is not likely to catch on? The state suggests – but does not mandate – encouraging, but not requiring, customers to complete a health screen and provide contact information that can be used later for contact tracing.

How Erie County intends to meet demand for Covid-19 'contact tracers'

To further cut down on congestion, stores will move or eliminate some racks and fixtures, and could begin carrying less inventory, or storing more merchandise in stockrooms to free up space.

You may find yourself waiting outside stores in appropriately distanced queues as rules require stores to operate at half capacity. Decals directing customers to stand 6 feet apart will be placed on floors in checkout lanes. Should you forget to wear a mask, you will be reminded to put one on before entering the store.

Stores are required to install plexiglass, curtains or other partitions in other areas where it's possible to separate workers from each other and from shoppers. Point-of-sale systems might change, as the state pushes stores toward contactless transactions.

Expect the workers you see to wear face coverings and keep their distance. You'll also see them cleaning more often to keep up with increased sanitation requirements. If you see a store's doors or windows open, it's because the state recommends doing so to increase ventilation.

On top of the changes, expect a whole lot of signs educating consumers on the new way of doing business.

Bob Phibbs, CEO of retail consulting firm Retail Doctor, advised clients to adopt several of these measures even before the state put them in place for its first reopening phase.

"All of this is to help shoppers regain a sense of trust," Phibbs said.

Phibbs also urged his clients to film an explainer video telling customers what the changes in stores will look like and how they will keep shoppers safe. That will make them more comfortable, he said.

"We have to shift the idea of waiting on shoppers to caring for them. That's what all these steps are to help accomplish," Phibbs said.

Officials had hoped Western New York would be among those to begin its first phase of reopening Friday, but the region did not meet the state's metrics required to reopen. It lags in two categories, Covid-19 hospitalization and death rates.

When Western New York does qualify for the first phase, nonessential stores will be allowed to open for curbside pickup, delivery and in-store pickup under the state's guidelines. Nonessential stores are currently allowed to operate for delivery and curbside pickup, but with no more than one person working on site.

Additional retail is slated to open under phase two, which is to begin roughly two weeks after the beginning of phase one. That won't be until sometime in June – at the earliest.

The state has a lengthy list of rules for stores to follow, such as having a written plan outlining how it meets the state's requirements. That plan must be available for review by customers and patrons alike.

"If you do not have that plan, you cannot reopen. It’s as simple as that," said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

Here's how reopening may unfold in Western New York

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