The prime minister has announced that retail outlets, including bridal boutiques, should be able to open from 15th June and are encouraging retailers to get their shops “COVID-secure” in preparation.
Most boutiques are keen to open as soon as possible and many have already been completing their risk assessments and are putting plans in place ready for reopening.
The government has published very detailed advice and checklists that cover all retail outlets. It is now down to boutiques to establish exactly how to translate this advice into the specific actions they need to take, depending on the size of the business and how it is organised, operated and managed.
To help you decide which actions to take, you need to carry out an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment, just as you would for other health and safety related hazards, to establish reasonable and effective ways of keeping your customers and staff safe while operating a profitable business.
With government advice often open to interpretation, it is important for the industry to quickly establish a “norm”. This not only helps establish what is a “reasonable risk” on issues such as the use of dressing rooms, but also reduces the risk of a bride feeling that their boutique is being unreasonable, if, for example, they are told they can’t bring their entire bridal party to the appointment.
From the experts
We have observed over the past weeks that brides are very happy to accept most policies, however extreme or unusual, as long as the same policy is also being imposed on other brides.
Alison Hargreaves, Wedding industry expert and Guides for Brides CEO
We have spoken to a number of bridal boutiques, as well as looking at detailed government advice to help us put together a roadmap to reopening for those boutiques who are unsure where to start, or simply want to ensure they are following a similar route to others.
Below, we have taken the government advice for each process and explored how other boutiques are adjusting their businesses around it.
1. Increase the frequency of hand washing
Your policy should include hand washing or sanitising for staff and customers as they arrive at the boutique and when they leave. Staff should wash hands between each customer. If disposable gloves are worn, a new pair should be used at the same intervals that you would have been hand washing.
2. Clean surfaces frequently
For bridal boutiques, as well as door handles and fitting room curtains, this includes any garments that customers have touched. Most are taking the approach of steam cleaning garments between appointments and not allowing brides to browse the rails. Allow time for cleaning between every appointment. Leaving garments for 48 hours is thought to be as effective, but may be impractical.
3. Work from home when possible
Only those staff directly involved in the appointment should be in the boutique. All paperwork and administration that can be done from home, should be.
4. Make every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines set out by the government, by keeping people 2m apart
Limit the maximum number of customers allowed in at a time; usually the bride plus one. Consider rearranging the dressing rooms to give additional space and make them as open-plan as possible. With just one customer in the boutique at a time, this can be much easier to achieve.
5. Where the social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full for a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate.
Those boutiques who are not reliant on selling bridesmaids dresses are focussing entirely on the bridal gown rather than have multiple customers in the boutique at the same time. Many are encouraging brides to come back to choose their veil at a later date when it will be safer to stand in close proximity.
6. Keep the activity time involved as short as possible
Encourage brides to look at your collection online so they have a clear idea of what they are looking for. Discourage “casual shoppers” who go from one boutique to another to browse with little intention of buying at this stage, by charging a small appointment fee, refundable against their dress.
7. Use screens or barriers and back-to-back or side-to-side working, rather than face-to-face, whenever possible
Some boutiques are using perspex face shields for dress fittings where they need to be close to their customer. Using large mirrors to make eye contact with your brides while standing beside them during the consultation removes the need to talk face to face.
8. Reduce the number of people each person has contact with
Just one assistant should work with each customer. If they have brought someone from their household to the appointment, ask them to assist them in dressing.
There is a detailed checklist on the government website along with a downloadable poster to show your customers that you are taking the right precautions.
In addition to the government guidelines there have been a number of questions that boutiques and brides have been asking us, so we thought it would be helpful to share our thoughts:
Should you or your customers be wearing PPE?
Wearing a face covering can reduce risk of spreading the virus if you are infectious and stops you touching your mouth or nose. Some boutiques are making their own lace or satin face masks which might not be as effective as others but will help your customers feel safer, which is an important consideration. Most shops will be encouraging staff to wear masks, some will be wearing gloves too, and almost all will be offering them to customers when they arrive, along with the opportunity to sanitise or wash their hands.
Should you be taking temperatures of staff or customers?
Some businesses will be taking temperatures as standard practice for all employees using a simple forehead monitor, and it may become so commonplace that people won’t mind. However, it involves getting within 2m of the person in order to take their temperature, thus increasing risk. It may be better to ask customers to confirm that they feel well and shouldn’t be self-isolating. Be prepared to refund appointment deposits or offer an alternative appointment date to encourage them to cancel if they are in doubt. If you are taking temperatures, you need to think through your policy if someone then presents with a slightly raised temperature which could be from rushing to the appointment or sitting out in the sun earlier that day.
How many people can be in a boutique at a time?
Clearly every boutique is different, but the main differentiator in risk assessment will be around the physical size of the boutique. While physical distancing – ideally 2 metres – is such an important safety factor, the amount of space you have will dictate what is possible.
For the majority of boutiques the safest policy will be appointments for the bride plus one friend or family member, ideally from the same household. Plus, one or possibly two members of staff, depending on the size of the boutique.
Are we allowed to use our fitting room?
This has been a topic of discussion. The government discourages the use of fitting rooms at this stage, but does that apply to bridal boutiques? It is important to look at the difference between the two settings. Small fitting rooms common in department stores have people in close proximity, surfaces can’t be effectively cleaned between users and clothes can be reworn without effective cleaning. In a bridal boutique, there is one large fitting room and an assistant to manage the risk. You can further reduce the risk by removing anything that can’t be cleaned from the area and increasing the amount of space, removing doors or curtains if possible.
Do you have to operate by appointment only?
No, you could allow your customers to stand in a socially distant queue outside your shop, but with the length of time of typical appointments, plus cleaning time, they may have a very long wait. Most are happy to make appointments and know they won’t have to wait. For those not using their own booking software, we have a new appointment booking option on our bridal boutique pages. It doesn’t replace a booking system, nor give them a confirmed appointment, but enables them to email a request and lets you know when suits them.
It will be worth holding back a few appointments from brides with weddings this year; we have heard from a few who hadn’t started shopping for their dress before lockdown started and others who think their gown won’t arrive in time.
Can we offer a glass of champagne or other refreshments?
Most are choosing not to at the moment. As bars and restaurants open, we’ll see ways that they minimise risk including the use of individual bottles and pre-sealed disposable glasses. However, individual boutiques will need to assess whether brides tend to linger for longer, and evidence has shown that sustained exposure should be avoided where possible.
It is going to be hard for those working in the industry to adjust to this new way of working and many have expressed how much they’ll miss giving their brides a hug when they find “the dress”. But it is important to remember that many brides hadn’t been shopping for their bridal gown before COVID-19 restrictions started to come into place in March so they have no expectations based on what the boutique experience was like before then.
For them, it will still be the most magical experience to see themselves in their wedding dress for the first time, and it is down to us, as an industry, to make that the safest, and most fun experience possible.
Unsure how your customers will react to the restrictions? Read and share the guidelines for brides on wedding dress shopping during social distancing.
About the author
Written by: Alison Hargreaves
Alison founded Guides for Brides in 1995 and has been advising brides and businesses ever since. She has an unrivalled knowledge of the wedding industry and is part of an international network of wedding professionals and entrepreneurs. Alison frequently appears on podcasts and expert panels as well as judging various wedding awards.