Business leaders discuss their strategies to survive the COVID-19 shutdown and their outlook for the recovery.
University Park New Balance co-owner
Spreading the word about a new store location is hard enough under normal circumstances. In a pandemic? According to Molly Jackson, who owns the new University Park New Balance store with her husband, David, it has been one of the biggest challenges of her career.
Jackson says the biggest change has been going digital. Prior to the pandemic, the Jacksons’ New Balance store, which moved to its current location across from University Town Center (8204 Tourist Center Drive) from the north side of University Park on Feb. 22, was all about the in-person experience. Sales people would help customers find the exact right shoe and fit, she says, while treating each one like a VIP. It was so central to the experience that customers could not purchase shoes from the store online, only reserve them for an in-store purchase.
Current circumstances being what they are, that strategy had to change. Jackson says she worked with New Balance to get an online store running through Locally.com. Now customers can purchase products online and pick them up curbside or have them delivered. Jackson says the University store was the first New Balance store in the U.S. to test the method. The entire process took less than a week. So far, she says, things have been running smoothly.
“The minute it went live, I was screaming about it to everyone I know,” Jackson says.
On May 4, the physical store reopened with safeguards in place. Employees wear masks, and customers are offered them if they are not already wearing one. Employees will regularly have their temperature taken, and there will be signs on the floor to direct traffic and help with social distancing, similar to signs currently found in grocery stores.
Jackson says she is hopeful everything is back to normal for back-to-school sales. After all, everyone needs new shoes to show off to their friends, she says.
Realtor, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Realty
Realtor Pam Charron says she feels lucky in comparison to others. The pandemic has yet to seriously impact her business’s finances, thanks to strong performances in January and February, but it has changed the way Charron operates day to day.
“Online communication is more prevalent than ever,” Charron says. “Almost everything can be done remotely. FaceTime tours of houses and that kind of thing — that’s not new, but it’s being marketed differently and is a more popular option. I also don’t have to go to closings or inspections. If someone does want to have an in-person showing, I will wear gloves and bring wipes to sanitize everything.”
Charron says anything can happen in real estate, but for now, there’s still a market for both buyers and sellers. It is three to six months from now that she is unsure about.
“I have had six customers from out of the state call me [the last week of April] and say, ‘I will come down to look at properties when I can.’” Charron says. “Well, no one knows when it will be safe to do that. Until then, those customers are waiting it out. But the summer months tend to be slower, anyway. I think the biggest effect will be on people looking for houses that are more of a want than a need. We will likely see less of those.”
Although Charron believes some good can come from lessons learned during the pandemic — she says she thinks video chat house tours will remain a popular option — she also hopes customers do not shy away from the in-person real estate experience completely. Agents can act as a guide to new cities and communities, she says. Her favorite part of the job is being that “area ambassador.”
“I’m an optimistic person,” Charron says. “I think we will see a strong return to normalcy soon.”
Executive Director, Lakewood Ranch Community Activities
A world with no outdoor activities is a sad one for Keith Pandeloglou.
“Shutting everything down was, I think, tougher emotionally for me than for most people,” Pandeloglou says. “In everything I do, I want to bring people together, and until it is safe, we have to keep them apart.”
Pandeloglou is the executive director of Lakewood Ranch Community Activities, which plans events for the people of the community to enjoy. Under normal circumstances, this means things like Music on Main, a monthly event where people enjoy live music while perusing vendor tents and eating food. Those aren’t possible right now, and Pandeloglou says he is not sure when they will be.
In the interim, Pandeloglou has been moving as many events as possible to an online format. Lakewood Ranch’s YouTube page has videos with tips on mindful meditation and general fitness, plus art project tutorials for kids. Pandeloglou says these videos are getting more views than they would get attendees in a live setting because people can watch them at their leisure. There is no pressure to be anywhere at a given time.
Pandeloglou says he does not believe getting back to what we considered normal in the past is possible, at least not for a long time, but getting back to a “new normal” is. That might mean having the tents at a Music on Main event spaced 10 feet apart instead of being next to one another. For Pandeloglou, it also means changing the definition of a successful event.
“We used to think a large clump of people meant things were going great,” he says. “We’re not going to have that now. People are going to continue self-policing themselves, I think. You might see a group of less than 10 standing together, but those groups will be spaced out. It will be a challenge, especially in those open-air places like Main Street, but I’m excited for people to be out on the streets again.”
Executive Chef, Grove Restaurant
Greg Campbell’s mind was turning long before restaurants were shut down by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 20.
Campbell is the executive chef and the director of operations at Lakewood Ranch’s Grove restaurant on Main Street, as well as Bradenton’s Pier 22 restaurant. Grove was voluntarily down to 50% dining capacity when the shutdown occurred. Campbell says he knew right away how the restaurant could survive the down time: by becoming something else entirely.
“I would go on grocery store runs and see that they were out of a lot of things,” Campbell says. “No sanitizing wipes. No toilet paper. They were low on a lot of other essentials, and everyone was crowded together. It was a total debacle. I thought, ‘We can provide groceries in a better way than this.’”
Because Grove has never offered delivery or even a takeout option, Campbell says, he thought the transition to the grocery store model would be the easiest path to success. His belief was proven correct on the operations side: It was as simple as taking food from one bag and putting it in a different bag and then putting that bag in someone’s trunk. Customers didn’t even have to roll down their windows, Campbell says. As of the last week of April, Grove was filling 60-80 of these orders per day.
The hardest part was creating a way for people to order their groceries online, something Grove did not have. Campbell’s staff created a secondary website, accessible through GroveLWR.com, where people could do just that. Campbell says people worked 12 hours a day for three days to complete it as soon as possible.
“It’s Amazon level,” Campbell says. “It’s awesome. They did great work.”
Even though Grove opened back up to 25% indoor capacity May 4 and expanded its outdoor seating, as allowed by phase one of DeSantis’ reopening plan, Campbell says it will continue fulfilling grocery orders plus other things it has tried, such as family-sized meals available for pickup, while still experimenting. Campbell says plans for cook-at-home meal kits and delivery service are in the works, and some of these ideas might continue long after the coronavirus is gone.
“It’s in challenging times when you come up with potential new business plans,” he says. “We are doing the best we can to find them and execute them.”