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With stores across the country in varying stages of reopening, retailers and local organizations are getting creative about ways to welcome shoppers back to their neighborhoods.

In New York, Chicago, Indianapolis and other urban hubs, street art has been splashed on boarded-up storefronts and public spaces to give people a reason to take a wander.

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Last weekend in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, artists picked up their paintbrushes to create murals on the many boarded-up stores. To date, more than 400 murals have been made as part of the Art2[Heart] project that started by word of mouth as a way to decorate the neighborhood. Street art also abounds in Indianapolis, where local art and business supporters have hired Black artists, who have been given full creative rein. To make the outdoor art experience a learning one, the Black artists have recorded downloadable interviews that detail the pain and emotion interwoven in their work. In Omaha, Neb., a different kind of technology, as in sensors that track real-time product engagement, is one of the tools that stores are trying out. And in San Francisco, a new program offers street-front space for retailers to sell their products al fresco.

Wherever stores are based, they have a lengthy checklist to get business going again in a significant way. Once the safety and health precautions are squared away for indoor shopping, there is a need for a certain amount of ingenuity to make consumers comfortable about returning to boutiques.

Along with record-high unemployment and spikes in COVID-19 cases in certain states, retailers are dealing with consumers who have been spending less and staying at home more. Millions of those potential customers have grown more accustomed to online shopping and others have become increasingly thrifty as the pandemic drags on. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that consumer spending or personal consumption expenditures dropped 13.6 percent to $1.89 trillion in April.

In San Francisco, some retailers are participating in the city’s Shared Spaces program, which allows stores to set up merchandise on the sidewalks, parking spaces in front and nearby public spaces. On average, about 20 linear feet is being used, according to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s public policy director Jay Cheng. “We’ve seen that go well. That’s been interesting and fun,” he said. Many of the group’s more than 1,000 retailers — of which 22 percent sell apparel or footwear — are participating in the free program.

The chamber has also been working with retailers to amp up their social media and digital efforts to drive more foot traffic back into their stores, Cheng said. In addition, stores that had to board up for awhile have used that opportunity to make murals — another means to attract people. In some cases, the murals have been auctioned after being taken down.

Despite these efforts and the reopening of indoor retail, the business climate remains a challenge. “It’s definitely a struggle. A lot of stores are saying they’re starting to reopen and they’re experimenting with indoor retail. But they haven’t seen tons of foot traffic. There is concern that consumer confidence hasn’t fully come back yet,” Cheng said.

In advance of its Phase 4 reopening on June 26, Chicago, one of the U.S. cities that faced tens of millions of dollar worth of property damage due to vandalism, is launching a yearlong digital marketing campaign — “Let’s Meet #OnTheMile” — that plays up a local-first approach. “We’re hoping for some normalcy,” said Adam Skaf, spokesman for The Magnificent Mile Association. “We’re taking an entirely local-first approach, which of course is not to say we don’t welcome people to drive in from other states or to fly in. We’re just not anticipating the same level of domestic and international travel that we saw before the pandemic.”

Drastic declines in domestic and international tourism are impacting retail sales for major cities like Chicago. A recent Morning Consult survey indicated that only 18 percent of respondents had taken an overnight trip since March. That is unlikely to change significantly any time soon, given the increases in reported COVID-19 cases and governors in several states — including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — imposing travel restrictions from coronavirus epicenter states. As it is, highway signs in New England and other parts of the country remind interstate travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days.

About 65 percent of the 375 stores on the Magnificent Mile and its surrounding area are expected to be open before the Fourth of July weekend. Zara, Nike, Ferragamo and Disney are among the stores that still have boarded-up windows, Skaf said.

While The Magnificent Mile remains a world-class destination, Skaf said, “We want to make it clear to native Chicagoans that we’re a neighborhood in the heart of downtown. We’re not some distant destination. They can come and have a stay-cation. After getting back in the office after several months at home, they can spend a weeknight at a downtown hotel. Most will get a discounted rate,” Skaf said.

Trying to relay the message that we can be better and stronger together, the new digital-first campaign aims to make efforts in terms of diversity and inclusion. “As a business association, we are of course looking out for our members and their recovery under really difficult circumstances. But if we’re going to welcome all Chicagoans, we need to do that outreach to their communities as well on the South side and West side, too,” Skaf said, adding the Magnificent Mile’s charitable foundation has been revitalized to focus on community outreach and local charities again. “It’s not that that went away. Sometimes in the best of times you can forget what’s right in front of you in your own city,” he said.

As part of the MMA’s “Summer of Art” program, artist Sam Kirk has installed several pieces of art that were originally part of a 350-foot installation last year during New York City’s World Pride event. Kirk’s installations can be found in several locations, including in front of damaged stores along the Magnificent Mile through July 26. The artist’s aim is to celebrate the LGBQT community, especially the under-represented. “Bringing it here in Chicago is really important, because of the segregation that exists within Chicago. There’s a designated area for LGBQT individuals to go to — Boystown — and this installation is not there. It is in downtown Chicago,” Kirk said. “The artwork celebrates Black and Brown individuals primarily. It’s celebrating people who aren’t represented within the LGBQT community usually. But they are also often in the position where their own communities don’t always see them.”

With 1,000-plus businesses including 150 to 200 retailers, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce has partnered with the city to offer restart grants of up to $5,000 for eligible applicants. A new fund has been set up through the city and corporate partners for loans up to $25,000. The chamber, the city and other groups have created the Rapid Response Talent Hub so that employers that are hiring can find what they need in one place. Many of the unemployed or furloughed are from the city’s retail and hospitality sector, and logistics and manufacturing companies are currently at the forefront of hiring, according to Catherine Esselman, senior project manager for the Indianapolis chamber.

Like New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Ore. and other cities affected by vandalism a few weeks ago, downtown Indianapolis faced property damage estimated to be upwards of seven digits, she said. As in other places, street art is being used as a means to welcome consumers back regardless of how many stores have fully reopened.

In partnership with the local arts council, Esselman has been involved with hiring Black artists to create murals on canvases that are being installed on area businesses including boarded-up stores. The initiative is part of the chamber’s Startup 317, an art installation and pop-up shop program, which had planned 25 activations for last month pre-COVID-19. In its third year, Startup 317 is usually scheduled to coincide with the Indianapolis 500. Organizers decided to push the retail component until the fall due to the pandemic.

Knowing that some will visit the downtown area purely to see the boarded-up stores, there is a plan to make such outings not just art experiences but learning ones too. Participating artists and property owners have recorded audio interviews. These interviews are meant to give passersby a downloadable playlist to help give them a better understanding of race relations and other subjects.

Esselman said, “Yes, Black artists are helping us to create it, but it is with historically white-led institutions…If you want to come check them out, then you don’t want to hear our interpretation of what the inspiration was. It’s an actual dialogue between the creator and the collaborator to explain the pain and the emotion that drew from there.”

She added, “What’s been encouraging to me, as a well-intentioned white woman, is forcing those conversations from a Black artist’s perspective in terms of why they do want to do it or don’t want to do it. Also, we’re asking our landlords and owners to sign waivers, saying, ‘Yes, I’m OK if it’s uncomfortable — if it explicitly calls out this or that.’ The only caveat we’re putting on the artists is no profanity and no nudity. Other than that, it is free rein. We’re not asking to pre-approve designs or anything like that.”

Back in New York’s NoHo, NoLIta and SoHo neighborhoods, there is also an abundance of murals that relay messages of messages of social justice, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and love. Vacant storefronts have also served as canvases for some artists, and dancers have used the artistic backdrops for their own performances. Quality Mending, a 16-year-old vintage store in NoLIa, has created a “Make America” chalkboard mural for people to write what needs to change. A favorite with artists like Tom Sachs, the store has welcomed others like Billy Childish, John Lurie, C. Finley and Moby to design murals in the past. The Make America mural is meant to be a farewell-for-now as founder Oliver Harkness is relocating Quality Mending due to rising rents and the pandemic shutdown.

In Nebraska, early-stage businesses that are part of The Startup Collaborative, an entity owned by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, are helping local retailers reopen. Vesta is helping event marketers and community organizers with digital-first events, according to Erica Wassinger, cofounder of the Startup Collaborative. Another company, Retail Aware, helps retailers get a better sense of how to stock and staff their stores. The company’s proprietary sensors are used on shelves to allow stores to track product movement and assets in real-time. That information can be quickly used to re-merchandise products, adjust inventories and control the store’s traffic flow.

Wassinger also singled out Her Headquarters, which has been helping Omaha retailers craft reopening campaigns by curating brand partnerships to try to reach wider audiences. Ryan Redus, a vice president for the consulting firm Buxton, said the pandemic has only accelerated trends that were already happening before COVID-19 struck, including the importance of being culturally relevant and being a good brand with a good value proposition. URBN and Fabletics are two of the fashion brands he works with.

“People are getting scrappy on the marketing side to try to incentivize buyers to come back to the marketplace. Other than e-commerce, the second largest way for clients to gain market share at this time is to take advantage of those people who are shopping [with loyalty programs and high levels of customer engagement],“ Redus said. “Most of my clients have halted development or are taking a really conservative approach to adding new stores. What the future will look like is a big question mark and a big unknown over the next year.”


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