Elisa Spurlin hung a sign on her Menlo Park storefront windows printed with bold, red letters, large enough for someone to read from across Santa Cruz Avenue: "OPEN CURBSIDE."
When San Mateo County's revised public health order allowed businesses to reopen with curbside pickups on May 18, Spurlin opened just the front entrance of her store, blocked by a table with hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes, so customers could drop off their artwork and view samples of the frame designs they had chosen online.
It's a small, but essential change for "nonessential" stores like Spurlin's Peabody Gallery, a custom-framing and fine art gallery that has been around for three decades.
Spurlin said she doesn't expect a wave of customers to rush to her store. In normal times, Peabody's saw around one or two customers at a time. But the change does inch her toward some semblance of the hands-on service she was accustomed to providing for her longtime customers.
Once Peabody reopened, Spurlin immediately saw a whole spectrum of attitudes and behaviors towards self-protection among her customers — another reminder that there will be a new norm for how she interacts with the public.
"I had a woman bring a picture from her house, and once it got onto the table, she didn't want to touch it," Spurlin said. "Her husband had to touch it the whole time; she wasn't going to touch a thing."
Then there have been the ones who find the precautions exhausting.
"Some people are: 'I can't believe we have to do this,'" she said. "It's just interesting to see different people's take on it."
However a person feels about the health order, Spurlin said she'll have to start gauging the various comfort levels of her customers when they enter the store and will probably leave a table by the entrance for some time for those who won't want to fully enter.
Nearby at Kepler's Books and Magazines on El Camino Real in Menlo Park, staff are ready to launch into the new phase, with curbside pickup starting Friday, May 29.
They've been using Facebook ads and customer email lists to spread the word. After customers order from among the 30,000 books in stock at keplers.com, their purchases will be waiting in a bag at a table in the plaza between the Kepler's and Cafe Borrone.
Already, the bookstore has received a number of online orders for pickup, and CEO Praveen Madan is hopeful that business will continue to improve. Sales in the past 2 1/2 months dropped by 38% over the same period in 2019, he said by phone this week.
Kepler's is no stranger to changing business strategies: Several years ago, in danger of closing, it restructured in 2012 with a new model as a for-profit, community-supported bookstore and a nonprofit organization with educational and cultural programming.
But the coronavirus crisis is accelerating Kepler's evolution much faster than anticipated. Before the COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions, online sales were a tiny portion of the business. In the month of April, the bookstore saw 25 times the online sales than in April 2019, Madan said. Overnight, Kepler's became an internet operation, shipping books from its primary distributor's warehouse in Oregon and with staff interfacing with customers and vendors from laptops and PCs and working at home.
"The amount of growth has been astounding. It has blown our minds," he said.
But the curbside pickup isn't exactly the much-needed, or new, lifeline that struggling businesses say they need right now. Some stores have been offering the service from the beginning of the shutdown, while others' merchandise is not as conducive to a grab-and-go transaction.
At Vin Vino Wine, a California Avenue wine shop and tasting bar in Palo Alto, partner Lisa Robins said the store was allowed to stay open as an "essential business" under Santa Clara County's public health ordinance.
"The (curbside) expansion doesn't change a thing. It doesn't change our capacity at all," she said.
Overall, sales have been at about 60% of normal by offering pickups and local deliveries. Sales are not frenetic, but the store is making some money, she said.
Vin Vino Wine still can't do wine tastings, however, which account for a large part of the revenue.
Instead, staff has had to get creative. They ship out sample flights of wines to customers who then join on the Zoom video app for virtual tastings. The experience has been great fun, Robins said, and built up customer loyalty in the process.
Georgie Gleim, president and CEO of Gleim the Jeweler at Stanford Shopping Center, hasn't seen a great uptick in sales since Santa Clara County's loosened regulation went into effect on May 22, and she said it's too early to tell if it will make a meaningful impact.
But Gleim said she is hopeful overall. Since the beginning of the shutdown, people have continued to walk through the shopping center to patronize food stores such as Schwab's Meats and Sigona's Farmers Market, so the store has remained visible to passersby, she said.
The shopping center's website currently lists 13 stores other than restaurants that are offering curbside pickups, from Williams-Sonoma to Edwards Luggage to Macy's.
Gleim has used appointments, online sales, shipping and other means to deliver the jewelry that people order, she said. That's kept business flowing, but Gleim said the incremental changes don't substitute for in-person service and relationships.
"We can't wait to open up fully. We miss our customers," she said.
Anna Chow, co-owner of Menlo Park's Cheeky Monkey toy store, said the new curbside pickup option has not changed sales much from when her store was limited to providing only delivery service.
What Chow really sought in the public health order was the ability to allow customers to at least pick out what they want to purchase from outside the store. Instead, all purchases still have to be made ahead of time, over the phone, online or by other means, to limit the amount of face-to-face contact.
"The ordering mechanism — it's a shame now," she said. "Before, being able to come into the store and talk to us and see things was our differentiator, and now we don't have that."
While store owners eagerly wait for the all-clear to reopen for in-store shopping, so too, apparently, do customers. In fact, some local residents have gotten so used to at-home delivery options that the offer of curbside pickup is not all that enticing.
Sally-Ann Rudd, a resident of downtown Palo Alto, said she has used restaurants' curbside options in the past few months. Shopping retail is a different matter, though, and one she is unlikely to pursue, she said in an email.
"I have no plans to do curbside pickup for anything except food. This experience has killed the joy of shopping. I just buy necessities online and have them delivered," she said.
Midtown resident Sheri Furman said she probably won't take advantage of curbside options; she prefers in-store browsing.
"When I shop for other than basics, I like to meander and touch things. Amazon and Zulily are getting a lot of business from me, though," she said by email.
Crescent Park resident John Guislin said he and his wife used curbside pickup early during the shutdown for groceries at The Market at Edgewood. But they are still wary of the risks and limit their exposure.
"Now that we are more 'comfortable,' 'knowledgeable' or whatever the right word is, we go to shops infrequently but very early in the day, wear masks, bring our own sanitizing wipes and spend as little time as possible in shops. I do not think we will use curbside shopping in the near term," he said in an email.
But other residents have found stores that make curbside pickup an attractive option.
Downtown North resident Neilson Buchanan said in an email that he has used curbside pickup as opposed to delivery from local businesses, which he said is too expensive.
"Ace Hardware will bring stuff to their front door to avoid customer entry. I shopped curbside at Home Depot and Best Buy. It is slick and easiest. You park in a numbered stall, phone or text the stall number, then someone shuttles the stuff to your car. The stall-and-delivery concept is probably the safest way to limit viral vectors," said Buchanan, retired CEO of El Camino Hospital.
Crescent Park resident Greg Welch has used curbside shopping and thinks it's a good idea.
"I have used three 'curbside' pick-ups: at The Market at Edgewood for full grocery orders, at the Sundance Steakhouse to pick up a 'cook at home' meal, and Taverna for take-out. All worked great, and even post-pandemic I think this would be a great service for them to continue if at all possible. Whenever we've done these, we've also called friends and family to see if we can pick them up anything, as long as we're out," he said.
Cheeky Monkey's Chow recognizes that, especially for businesses that sell the types of merchandise that hers does, customers too easily turn to online retailers during the pandemic.
"It really requires the customer to make that extra step and say, 'You know what, I'm going to support my local business,'" she said.
Chow said she's ready, when health officials are, to move into the next phases of reopening her shop. She's in the process of changing the entire layout of her 4,000 square-feet store so that customers can practice physical distance while browsing. She's also drawing out ideas on how to get children interested in toys without the use of product demos kids used to be able to play with.
Kepler's, meanwhile, is looking further ahead: Madan and the staff are strategizing for a shift in buying patterns, particularly during Christmas, the time when retail businesses make the money that pays the bills for the rest of the year.
"It's clear retail is going to be impacted for a very long time," he said, noting that health department and state protocols and social distancing could go on for many months.
"It's clear we have to work even harder. We're not relying on a traditional transaction model," he said.
With new programs and services such as at-home consultations with a bookseller, Kepler's staff — like other local retailers — are trying to reinvent the shopping experience for customers in ways that will be both safe and appealing.
"It's going to take a lot of new thinking," he said.
For a detailed look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the local economy, employment, education and more, see "Life in Quarantine: How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed Silicon Valley," a series of interactive by-the-number graphics.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.