Mothballed for medical reasons?  Retailers react differently amidst a pandemic’s uncertainty.

So, from my previous article on social distancing and DC’s only coffee shop with interior seating (that I’m aware of), I’ve concluded that the readership here actually likes articles that are timely and of-the-moment.  No surprise.  Given the rewards I reap in terms of conversation and clicks (all intellectual, none financial!) I’ll probably keep doing it from time to time.  A sort of “report from the plague”, particularly reflective of how the nation’s capital treats this COVID-19 disaster, which in some respects has been different from Virginia or Maryland just a few miles away.  Only on Wednesday evening, in fact, did Washington go into full “lockdown mode”, in terms of mandatory closure of all non-essential businesses.

But a few places in DC took the cue a bit earlier.  Here’s the scene around Eastern Market shortly before Mayor Muriel Bowser’s lockdown decree.IMG_2538These two new mid-rise apartment buildings, having replaced an aging (but not historic) middle school, capitalize on their proximity to the Eastern Market WMATA Metro Station (the subway) immediately across the street.  Not only are they a higher-value use than a public school (most of whose students could relocate to a newer facility about a quarter-mile away), but they help instill more density and pedestrian activity at this historic commercial node, anchored by the historic Eastern Market building a block to the north.  And, as is obvious from the signage and fenestration, the buildings feature retail on the first floor.  The active red glow of the “Trader Joe’s” should indicate that it is still in operation during the COVID-19 lockdown; not surprisingly, grocery stores usually pass muster as essential businesses.  But what about that other building just to the left?IMG_2539Some of the storefronts have not yet found a tenant and are luring prospective retailers with garish promotional displays.  Others have chosen the opposite approach, filling their windows with charcoal black.

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But the blackened storefront isn’t vacant; it’s a Sephora Studios, a branch of the French cosmetics mega-chain.  And not only did it decide to shutter completely, the staff mothballed the place.

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The small printed sign is familiar: it’s typical of storefronts throughout the District right now, in terms of places that have suspended operations in response to the pandemic’s uncertainty.  But few have taken such extreme measures as Sephora.IMG_2542mothballed Sephora at Eastern Market, DC

But you have to hand it to them: their devotion to an elegantly, consistently mothballed façade is incredible; they even got the tiny, awkwardly placed windows.

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And the staff at Sephora even took the time to paint the plywood a subtler, more attractive black; when I came by a few days earlier, it was still the natural wood color.

For those of us who have lived in areas susceptible to hurricanes—which I’d wager is about one-third of the nation’s population—the plywood on the windows is a familiar sight.  DC is not a city likely ever to suffer the direct impact of a hurricane-like storm, so boarded-up storefronts to a pricey retailer in a prosperous area is a bit jarring.  It may seem like a knee-jerk and almost irrational response, given that a pandemic is nothing like a hurricane.  But the plywood on storefronts serves much the same purpose during both disasters: it is less a protection from natural forces as human ones.  No surprise really, but Sephora’s leadership seems to think a) there’s no financial benefit to staying open under CDC social distancing mandates; b) this situation is going to affect operations for quite some time; c) it’s better to protect against theft through a mothballed, low-maintenance condition than a visibly closed storefront display that requires monitoring.  At this point in late March, Sephora is going it alone.  None of the other storefronts around Eastern Market have made it so obvious that they closed for the foreseeable future.IMG_2544

Why is a mothballed state likely the best method for Sephora to address this disaster’s uncertainty?

I’m the last one who probably should be analyzing the operations of a cosmetics shop, but I’m going to give it a try.  The merchandise within Sephora is reasonably high value but also non-perishable.  This is a condition Sephora could easily share with retailers of electronics, clothing, appliances, bicycles, and many others that may have remained operative prior to the lockdown, all while enforcing social distancing and limited patronage to ten people or less.  But cosmetic retailers depend more on people remaining in close proximity, while the sampling of make-up—part of the shopping experience—would turn a place like Sephora into a potential cesspool for infectious disease or viruses.  And unlike, say, nail salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors, or massage studios—where the simple donning of a face mask can help preclude the spread of airborne disease—a cosmetic shop depends on the full visibility of the face.  Make-up celebrates the human countenance.  How can Sephora promote its products through sales clerks if 60% of their faces are concealed?  Lastly, there’s probably reduced demand for make-up for the same reason there’s low demand for pricey new clothes, or dry cleaners and laundromats, for that matter.  With everyone ensconced in their homes, there’s just less of a need for looking good.  Taking these facets of operations into consideration, Sephora’s mothballed state may have just as much to do with eschewing liability and brand degeneration as it does with safeguarding against theft.  And who are we to begrudge them of this?  It’s still plenty easy to order their products online.

Across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Sephora and equally close to the Eastern Market Metro stop, another widely known global chain has taken a different response to the pandemic.IMG_2535Like restaurants, coffee shops are not subject to the same restrictions as the self-care services referenced in the previous paragraph.  They can still accommodate carry-out customers and deliveries.  But this Starbucks is reacting more pointedly than most.IMG_2536Confusing, contradictory signage aside, this location seems to be adapting well to an environment where customers cannot linger.  Just take a look at the interior.IMG_2537

It’s a smaller Starbucks than average, and this photo probably captures over half of the floor space.  Take my word on it: this Starbucks had no seating whatsoever.  Outside of maybe an occasional coffee kiosk in partnership with the primary tenant (in a hotel, casino, or a department store), I’ve never seen a fully autonomous Starbucks without a single place to sit.  In the past, this Eastern Market location had a communal table and a row of stools along the window.  Now they’re all gone.

I’ll concede that I don’t know when they removed the furniture; those photos are a few years old, and Starbucks might have made the decision a long before the pandemic was immanent (loitering tends to be a problem outside this location).  But this is not the status quo for the company, which typically encourages people to sit and sip because having reasonable crowds in an establishment is some of the best publicity a retailer can get.  However, with social distancing enforced, Starbucks may have decided to play it safe and reinforce the policy of carryout only.  And if extracting furniture is as good a technique as mothballed with plywood for weathering the uncertainty, I tip my hat to any and all businesses with the resiliency and resourcefulness to navigate around all the hurdles being thrown their way—both biological and legislative.

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16 thoughts on “Mothballed for medical reasons?  Retailers react differently amidst a pandemic’s uncertainty.

  1. AvatarDena Eben Kernish

    Does it have to do with whether or not corporate has removed products from the windows? In our local retail area (down the street from my house in Issaquah, WA), only the framing store has gone the plywood route. It is unpainted.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I have to admit I don’t know much about Sephora (as is probably obvious from my blog), and my biggest exposure to the store has been through enclosed malls. This is one of the few I’ve walked by regularly that has conventional storefront windows, but you’re probably right about high-value products on display. I just don’t know: do slightly upscale cosmetics have resale value? Would people steal make-up so they can pawn it off? Do people crave eyeliner in desperate times?

      Either way, I’d imagine this is a safeguard against looting, and also a recognition that a place like Sephora could be Ground Zero for the transmission of an airborne virus.

      Reply
      1. AvatarDena Eben Kernish

        I think looting is a possibility, esp in D.C. But in by my own (suburban, upscale) retail area, I wonder why the franchised framing store would go to such lengths when others are not. Maybe it has to do with insurance and proving they were really affected by the crisis, prior to non-essential businesses being forced to close?

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

          That’s a fair guess; it would be easier to show it as genuine breaking-and-entering and less likely to raise suspicion for insurance fraud?

          An upscale, locally owned clothing store not so far from this Sephora didn’t mothball, but they moved out all their inventory. It looks vacant, as though they went out of business, but the website is still active and a sign out front indicates the store is still in operation. I guess we can wait a few weeks and see if that’s still the case.

          Reply
  2. AvatarChristine

    That’s interesting. Anticipating riots or looting? By the way, I went to some of the public hearings for that development…since I lived in the area. It made me swear to never go to a meeting without eating again. I was there for hours. And you would have thought the school and parking lot was historic. The NIMBYism was strong. The development was going to affect the sunlight in all of those poor, poor (sarcastic) row home owners. From what I can tell, it’s a pretty nice development.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I’d agree, Christine–they do seem like pretty nice buildings, and their massing isn’t really that different from the school that preceded them. Six stories for the most part? Guess it still shouldn’t surprise me about the NIMBYism. I can’t help but wonder if the developer aggressively pursued the idea of recruiting a Trader Joe’s as one of the tenants to help sweeten the deal and appease some of the angriest NIMBY neighbors.

      As for the Sephora, it seems to me it’s a “worst case scenario” preparation they’ve got going, in addition to the fact that, when faced with a hugely contagious virus, a cosmetics store is probably not among the most sanitary environments, and social distancing doesn’t matter when there are so many hands coming in contact with so many faces… Besides, if Sephora.com isn’t doing bang-up business at this point, that’s the company’s own failure to capitalize!

      Reply
  3. AvatarOran Sands

    I noticed that on the news. Reporters standing in front of boarded up shops. Are they afraid of looting?

    Reply
      1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

        Probably weighing the risk of looting against the profit/liability of running a business that—even if it uses CDC Guidelines for social distancing—still involves a lot of hands being put to faces, in less than hospital-level sanitary conditions. There’s always Sephora.com.

        Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Wouldn’t surprise me if the same could be said for downtown DC, but I haven’t been there in a while. The Virginia suburbs, on the other hand, are still crazy active. The lockdown isn’t as stringent as in MD, I think. Most stores in VA are still closed, but I would say more people than usual are out running and walking their dogs.

      Reply
  4. AvatarBrian M

    Union Square is all boarded up, I am told (Downtown San Francisco).
    Myself, we are going 100% remote work. Which I hate. There is technology, but it remains awkward and I actually miss my coworkers.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      I can’t help but wonder: by “Union Square” do you mean the full plaza is all boarded up, or is just some of the kiosks that are there. Or maybe the underground parking garage? Or am I being too literal, and you’re talking about the expanse of upscale shopping that surrounds the central plaza? Probably the last of these. And that’s probably an unusual conditions for SF. Having lived in hurricane country, I’ve definitely seen this walled-off appearance before.

      My experience with remote work is that the demand and day-to-day expectations doesn’t really change much, but the efficiency (due to VPN and using a less robust computer) is a lot lower, resulting in the need to expend more time to do tasks the previously were pretty straightforward. Not a huge fan of it either.

      Reply

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