In the post-coronavirus world, bridal appointments might never be the same.
    From party size limits and restrictions on walk-in traffic to requiring individuals to don personal protective equipment (PPE) and operational shifts altering the hands-on dynamic that has often guided the (quite literal) high-touch customer service bridal retail is known for, COVID-19 has influenced boutiques’ present reality and will almost assuredly shape their future.
    As stores increasingly welcome brides and others into their doors and begin the arduous march ahead, the bridal appointment is shifting – and will continue to shift – as retailers and customers alike find their footing amid the greatest public health challenge of the last century.
    With a new normal upon us, the old bridal appointment might be a thing of the past.

The New Normal: Requiring appointments
    Once upon a time, boutiques allowed walk-ins and various outlets relied exclusively on walk-in traffic. COVID-19 largely ended that practice and required boutiques around the U.S. to adopt appointment-only operations to comply with government-mandated gathering sizes.
    Even for some of the most ardent champions of the walk-in model, appointments seemed a beneficial turn – and a practice many retailers wish to continue. In a May survey of nearly 500 boutiques, one in three retailers told VOWS they were going to be appointment only or have limited walk-ins upon reopening.
    Many retailers found appointments enabled them to better schedule staff and provided employees room to handle an array of virus-battling housekeeping practices. As a result, the day was more orderly, empowering boutiques to better plot their schedules.
    And though appointments capped the daily number of customers a store could serve, it also prevented a flood of guests from overwhelming the store, challenging both staff and safety. Less traffic, however, didn’t appear to derail sales. At least during the springtime height of COVID-19, many boutiques reported reduced traffic but higher closing rates as stores saw more serious, intentional shoppers. As appointments became the industry norm during COVID, it seems many brides focused their efforts and resisted calls to casually visit one store after another.
    Now, the appointment is no panacea, especially as consumers grow weary of COVID and hunger for a return to pre-virus life. Simply booking an appointment does not guarantee a genuinely interested customer will arrive – and no-shows have long been a source of frustration. In time, this may propel stores to adopt appointment fees, a concept that has gained traction in other markets around the world, including the United Kingdom.
    As retailers look to maximize their time, the appointment fee – a nominal charge that reserves a time slot before being refunded upon arrival or applied to a subsequent purchase – nudges customers to show or, at the minimum, prompts a timely cancellation. Some stores might pursue a hybrid model, waiving fees during non-peak weekday hours while placing premium rates on the most in-demand times, such as weekends and holidays.
    While 84 percent of respondents to VOWS’ COVID-19 survey said they do not charge an appointment fee or have plans to do so, there is a growing segment of retailers contending that more universal acceptance of appointment fees across the bridal retail landscape would serve to uplift bridal retail and the specialized service stores provide, further professionalize operations and minimize the financial drain of no-shows.

The New Normal: Modified interaction between staff and customers
    The bridal retail industry is known for its high-touch service, including associates helping brides in and out of dresses, quickly styling hair or placing accessories on brides. The social distancing prompted by COVID-19 severely challenged such hands-on contact, though retailers and their teams found ways to adapt.
    According to VOWS’ May survey, approximately three-quarters of stores altered their interaction with brides in dressing rooms. One in three stores, for instance, limited their stylists’ help to assisting with zippers or clips, while 25 percent of stores required a bride’s companion to assist with trying on gowns. In many cases, staff wore masks and stood behind or beside the bride to minimize face-to-face contact. Some stores even outsourced measurements, requiring a guest of the bride to measure while an associate or seamstress provided instructions from six-plus feet away.
    To streamline appointments and limit the number of dresses brides tried on, numerous stores adopted pre-appointment screenings. Through simple phone calls, virtual meetings or questionnaires, stores began gathering customer information earlier in the process. Leveraging online portals of collections or their own websites, some stores ran through gown options with brides and selected specific dresses to try on in advance of the bride’s arrival. Such screenings, especially in boutiques with appointments, could become even more commonplace as stores look to propel customer service, optimize their in-store time with a bride and close sales.
    Many retailers expect the new normal will rely more on tech and streamlined operations, including a greater focus on off-the-rack options, which helps stores move inventory and improve cash flow while subsequently appeasing those brides concerned about product delays, eager to limit store visits or working on short timelines. COVID-19 prompted changes and many retailers who responded to the VOWS survey said they planned to continue or expand some of their coronavirus-prompted customer service elements into the future, thereby reshaping stores’ interactions with brides. One in five shops, for example, intend to keep virtual consultations and another 20 percent plan to continue using curbside pickup.

The New Normal: Safety-minded store policies
    Though some retailers acknowledge that customers have not seemed as concerned or interested in enhanced safety protocols as they initially assumed, there remains lingering concerns about safety and liability as well as serving clientele and employing staff who do feel anxiety about entering retail establishments.
    Recognizing that their stores must consider the health and safety of everyone, many retailers instituted strict guidelines and new policies designed to limit risk.
    Many, for instance, insist that anyone inside the store wear a mask – often pointing to guidelines or recommendations from health officials to justify the policy – and immediately sanitize their hands upon entry, something most promote with a station right inside the front door stocked with hand sanitizer, masks and other safety-minded goods. (Of note, some retailers and stylists have remarked that the presence of masks makes it difficult to read brides’ expressions and to assess the body language so important to the sales process.)
    Some stores, meanwhile, have required guests to sign waivers outlining store policies around wearing a mask in the store and respecting the shop’s guest limit. Others ask screening questions and record names of every store guest. Still others take the temperature of every guest entering the boutique.
    Even into May, with stay-at-home orders only beginning to loosen across the country, many stores reported guests refusing to wear masks or pushing back on the policy before acquiescing. Other retailers, meanwhile, say brides and guests have been appreciative of the steps their store took to drive a healthy environment, even if the policies were inconvenient and less than ideal.
    Depending on one’s customer base – make no mistake, feelings about the seriousness of the virus and the steps being taken to combat it differ greatly across the country – some of these measures might be temporary while others might stick well into the future. Store leadership will have to carefully evaluate their market and their own feelings to make thoughtful decisions.
    One thing many retailers were downright giddy to implement amid government mandates: smaller party sizes. Numerous stores instituted policies limiting a bride to only one or two guests, though some did allow brides to expand their party during non-peak weekday hours. The restrictions prompted many brides to adapt and include others in the experience virtually, resulting in a far more manageable appointment for stores compared to the outsized entourages that had become all too commonplace at bridal outlets.
    The smaller group sizes are something many retailers hope persist well into the future – and a measure many might try to will forward regardless of the presence or evaporation of government mandates on group gatherings. According to the VOWS survey, one in four retailers plan to continue virtual participation by bridal parties during an appointment. If successful, retailers are optimistic appointments will be more controlled, intimate affairs.


Injecting Positivity into a Time of Fear 

COVID-19 brought uncertainty to the forefront, and uncertainty often breeds fear.
    Albeit to varying degrees, retailers, their teams and their customers are worried, apprehensive and anxious, whether it’s about health, families, their own financial well-being, macroeconomic forces or how the future, including weddings, might unfold. As the best-laid plans have run awry amid the greatest public health challenge of modern times, fear is not only a normal response, but an expected one.
    As the leader of your shop, you play a critical role in easing concerns, the key point person capable of providing reassurance, comfort and confidence. What you say and do can bring positivity and balance into times rattled by uncertainty and fear.

Embrace your entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurs are risk takers and doers. As a retailer, you’ve already confronted fear and unease. You’ve opened a store. You’ve dealt with challenging, tough customers. You’ve likely endured an economic downturn or two. You’ve stared at debt and confronted shifting market conditions. And being here, remaining open after the unexpected hit COVID-19 delivered, proves your resiliency. Lean on that for inspiration as you navigate these testy times.

Honor thy mission. Every business should hold some mission statement – or at least possess a guiding purpose behind its actions. Leaning heavily on that mission, letting it direct decision making and communicating it often, pushes conversations away from fear or uncertainty and into something positive. And in the case of many retailers, that’s ensuring brides have a magical day.

Prioritize communication. A failure to communicate will likely spark angst and unease. Provide clear information to customers and staff on store policies regarding safety protocols or changes to the “normal” appointment. Regular, open communication will help put people at ease and nudges everyone onto the same page. Yet more, using different vehicles to communicate, from video to even vignettes in store windows, can all project positivity and reinforce the key messages you want to share.

Celebrate positive moments. Counter negativity by recognizing positive moments in the day. When a bride says yes to her dress, give that moment its proper weight: Ring a bell. Blast some music. Pop some bubbly. When a stylist closes a sale, acknowledge a job well done. Share photos of or notes from recent brides on an in-store bulletin board. Where goodness exists, celebrate it.

Be honest. Though transparency can be tough amid challenging, uncertain times, acknowledge concerns, give straight answers and be as clear and honest as possible without stirring added stress and fear. If supply chain issues arise, for example, acknowledge those and suggest alternatives to brides. If the business is facing financial difficulties, share those with staff and brainstorm solutions or note actions being taken. Such transparency helps people understand present realities, prevents rumors or misinformation from sending people down dark paths and assures others that you’re actively involved, listening and crafting thoughtful responses.

Practice empathy and compassion. With employees as well as customers, work to understand their challenges and concerns. Staff might be taxed as they juggle work and home life. Brides might be concerned about the ability of beloved relatives to attend their wedding. Show genuine concern. If you sense an employee is overwhelmed, encourage her to take a walk or find a sub for her hours. If you see a bride having a particularly stressful experience, encourage her to take a private moment for herself. Offer individuals the time and space as well as the support to discover balance and inner peace.

Promote teamwork. During times of fear, people often feel alone or isolated. Bring consultants together over morning coffee or an after-hours gathering to help them feel connected and part of a bigger unit.

Side with optimism. Even if the future is cloudy, continue to look ahead and plan for it. Brainstorm ways the boutique can adopt and pivot – something so many retailers did with curbside pickup and virtual meetings amid the novel coronavirus pandemic – and be open to ways your business can find its footing amid a new normal. Continue marketing. Put events on your calendar. Keep championing your brand promise. Insist on walking forward.

– Daniel P. Smith