The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to devastate segments of the retail industry in Maine, but industry leaders are hoping to help preserve jobs and businesses by having a say in how shopping will work after stores and restaurants are allowed to reopen.

The Retail Association of Maine proposed on Tuesday a staged reopening, with more stores allowed to reopen and restrictions relaxed gradually as progress is made in reducing the spread of the virus. Some in the state’s retail industry said the viral outbreak is likely to change forever how they do business.

The industry reopening plan, released on the same day Gov. Janet Mills outlined her plan for a phased reopening of the Maine economy starting Friday, mirrors her call for moving forward in four stages. Mills’ plan would allow most retail businesses to reopen in June with some restrictions such as in-store capacity limits.

Under the association’s plan, the industry would transition from the current, high-risk “red” stage, in which only essential retailers are allowed to operate, to a moderate-risk “orange” stage in which all retailers may operate but under strict safety protocols.

That would be followed by a low-risk “yellow” stage prompted by “additional success in reducing or eliminating the spread of the virus,” until reaching the lowest-risk “green” stage, when the spread of the virus is tightly under control but certain safety protocols still would remain in place permanently.

The association also suggested creating a sales tax holiday in the state to encourage shoppers to go out and spend.


Still, some retail analysts say the prolonged shutdown of nonessential shopping may mean that some retailers won’t survive. In addition to the shutdown, spending is expected to be reduced due to the unprecedented layoffs and a spike in unemployment that followed stay-at-home orders.

That has big implications for Maine, where some of the troubled major retailers, including Sears, Macy’s and J.C. Penney, are anchor stores at The Maine Mall.

One analyst said the department store category is “toast,” with some of the biggest retailers struggling even before the pandemic hit and closed the stores. As the country cautiously begins to reopen, it will be a make-or-break moment for those companies as they attempt to draw back a public that has been housebound for more than a month.

Even more daunting for such retailers is the fact that consumers have been hit with a wave of layoffs and furloughs that threaten to derail a decade-long recovery from the Great Recession.

Retailers shouldn’t assume customers are going to come back when they reopen, said Tracy Thie, co-founder of Powerplay Retail, a consulting and retail analysis firm. “This situation has opened their eyes to other ways of shopping that they may normally have been averse to.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean a big boost in online shopping either, Thie said.


“Most people will want to go back to shopping locally and at brick-and-mortar stores,” he said. “Retailers need to remember that people do enjoy shopping with real products and real people where they can walk out of the store with the items they bought.”

South Portland Economic Development Director Bill Mann said the city, home to The Maine Mall and southern Maine’s retail hub, is willing to work with businesses to help them rebound. Mann said property tax revenue from the mall is a significant factor in the city’s finances, and that South Portland has a vested interest in helping retailers adapt and return to prosperity.

Brookfield Properties, the mall’s manager and owner, declined to comment. The company operates dozens of malls around the country.

Other retail centers in Maine said the pandemic and shifting economy are leading to changes in how they will operate.

For instance, the developer of Rock Row, a mixed-use project being built in Westbrook, had planned to limit car traffic in the center of the development, which will have shops, restaurants, offices and apartments.

But changes in the restaurant industry, which adapted to closures caused by the pandemic by shifting to curbside pickup and delivery services, are likely to prompt a partial reconfiguration of the project, said Josh Levy, co-founder of Waterstone Properties, the developer of Rock Row.


The project will feature a food hall with restaurants, and Levy said Rock Row will try to help them by making it easier for customers and food-delivery businesses to pick up orders. That likely will require an increase in traffic flow through the center of the development, he said, adding that specific changes are still under consideration.

The rest of Rock Row is proceeding as planned, he said, with a Market Basket grocery store nearing completion and recently signed deals for The Paper Store and a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. Waterstone also announced this week that another developer will be building 190 apartments in a four-story building on the south side of the project site, which is bounded by Main Street and Larabee Road, near the Westbrook-Portland city line.

The developers of another major project in southern Maine said they are still assessing the impact of the pandemic and the reopening plan.

Rocco Risbara, one of the developers of The Downs in Scarborough, said the project is currently focused on housing and office plans. Retail planning will come later, he said, and the developers are trying to determine if they should make changes to the office buildings under development.

“The beauty of new construction is you can build anything you want,” Risbara said. “Social distancing likely will be part of the floor plan” going forward.

Risbara said work at The Downs has been slowed slightly as tenants and the developers assess whether changes are needed in building designs. Levy said the pace of work at Rock Row has remained on track, and his leasing team is working on a number of deals with potential tenants.


Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, said independent local retailers might be in a better position than large chains to adapt to reopening requirements such as making sure there is more room between customers and limiting how many people can be in a store at one time. He said grocery stores have provided a good model in terms of restricting the number of shoppers and installing plexiglass shields between customers and checkout clerks.

“We don’t know yet what it will look like,” Picard said about the reopening. For smaller retailers such as locally owned furniture stores, he said, it would be easier to shift to a “shop by appointment” model for a few weeks or months as virus testing becomes more widespread.

The risky retail environment already is leading to lower property values for commercial real estate, said Cedrik Lachance and Vince Tibone, analysts for Green Street Advisors, a firm that focuses on retail real estate.

In a blog post, the two said the coronavirus pandemic may be a “retail armageddon.” The pandemic is likely to hit the economy even more than the recession caused by the 2008 financial crisis, they said, and may lead to lower rents from “wounded retailers” for years.

Thie, the Powerplay Retail co-founder, said the reopening of stores from stay-at-home orders in the next few weeks is likely to involve a lot of twists and turns, a situation that favors small stores that can adapt quickly.

“It will force them to be nimble and flexible in areas that have stayed status quo for years,” he said.

And retailers will need to reorganize their stores, Thie said, taking steps such as clearing aisle space so customers can maintain social distancing. Retailers that offered new services before government-ordered shutdowns, such as curbside pickup, are likely to maintain those approaches due to customer demand, he said.

The key, Thie said, will be flexibility and recognizing where consumer preferences are headed.

“Watch, and train your staff to watch, for changes in consumers when you do reopen,” he advised.

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