Business groups say pre-pandemic operations may never return

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Shoppers hoping for businesses to return to pre-pandemic hours and services shouldn’t hold their breath.

Many businesses reduced the hours and days they were open or services they provided during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as mask mandates and social distancing requirements have faded, many businesses have yet to return to their extended hours or additional services.

After sticking with shortened hours for so long, Brian Calley, the president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said many businesses are unlikely to go back.

“I think where we’re at now is the new normal,” Calley said. “I don’t think there’s much expectation that things that haven’t gone back to how they were, are going to go back to how they were.”

A number of factors remain at play in the reduced operations, including labor force shortages, Calley said.

That’s largely driven by Michigan’s aging demographics and outward population migration.

And there are few signs of relief.

“Staffing is going to be harder, not easier, in the future,” Calley said. “That’s the reality a lot of businesses face today.”

Many young people who once would have been more likely to work, are choosing not to now.

“People are entering the workforce later, choosing not to work alongside going to school,” Calley said. “These feel very permanent in terms of societal changes.”

While the resulting reductions to hours and services can be frustrating for customers, Calley said the decisions are also challenging for businesses.

“When businesses are choosing when and how to be open and what services to provide, they have to decide between factors like, given the available workforce, do you want to go with fewer services for more hours, or more and better services but on fewer days and fewer hours,” Calley said. “Those have been tough decisions to make.”

Supply chain delays also continue to be a challenge, said Andrea Bitely, the vice president of marketing and communications for the Michigan Retailers Association.

“If you don’t have the product to sell, it’s hard to be open, it’s hard to employ people,” Bitely said.

But while businesses may have been forced into reducing hours and services initially, many may have found that they increased efficiency by doing so, Calley said.

“It put a lot of businesses into a position where they had to evaluate, if you only have staff for a certain number of days, or a certain number of hours, which are the best hours to be open, which are the ones that your customers are most likely to engage with you,” he said.

If businesses reduced operational costs by being open fewer hours while not seeing a large impact on revenues,  it would be “kind of in a category of if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Calley said

“If customers and businesses settled into a new pattern of interacting with each other, and it seems to be working, I think there probably would be trepidation to just on faith go back to how it was,” Calley said.

Some businesses experimented during the pandemic with a smaller physical footprint. That’s another way of increasing efficiency, Bitely said.

Meijer has opened stores in the Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapids areas that eschew the big box layout for a more streamlined one that focuses on groceries.

“They’re a smaller footprint, and they’re more specialized to just groceries,” Bitely said. “I think the pandemic had a lot of impact on our society overall, but I think efficiency in retail and new opportunity in retail is something that it definitely triggered as well,” Bitely said

There may be a long-term silver lining for businesses that made it through the pandemic, Bitely said.

“In some ways, it caused businesses to not survive. And others made adjustments that ended up working out better for that business long-term.”

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