Clothing stores during the pandemic
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14 New Rules for Clothes Shopping During the Pandemic

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Clothing stores during the pandemic
Matthew Hatcher/Stringer/Matthew Hatcher / Stringer/Getty Images North America

An Awkward Fit

Clothing stores are slowly starting to reopen in much of the country, and they're eager to make up sales lost under stay-at-home orders. While many shoppers are undoubtedly ready to go browse the racks in person, it won't be business as usual. From masks and hand sanitizer to virtual styling and curbside pickup, here are 14 ways your next clothes shopping experience will be different.

Waiting Outside Store
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You May Need to Wait Outside

Many big-box and grocery stores have been limiting the number of customers allowed inside for a while now. Apparel stores may enforce similar limits. For instance, Eddie Bauer will allow only five shoppers at a time. That may mean shoppers are asked to wait for others to finish before being allowed in to browse, particularly at smaller stores and during peak shopping times like weekends.

Keep Your Distance from Shoppers
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Keep Your Distance From Other Shoppers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others. Although apparel retailers aren't as likely to be overrun as grocery or big-box stores, it may be harder to spread out in smaller shops and tighter aisles. Expect to see signs and floor markers encouraging social distancing at many stores. T.J. Maxx is installing markers to keep shoppers apart in its checkout lines while American Eagle has a "reimagined store layout" that will help shoppers better keep their distance.

Store Hours Won't be Long
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Store Hours Won't Be as Long

It's a hard pill to swallow in our want-it-now world, but clothing stores including Kohl's and JCPenney are limiting their hours even as they reopen, often eliminating morning and late-evening shopping times. Kohl's, for instance, will be open from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. until further notice, while JCPenney won't open its stores until noon most days. Our advice: Call or check your local store's website before you go.

Related: These Grocery Stores Have Special Hours for Seniors and Other At-Risk Shoppers

Family shopping in a mall wearing masks
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You May Need to Wear a Mask

The CDC recommends that everyone wear masks in public to help contain the spread of COVID-19. For the most part, while major apparel retailers are requiring employees to wear masks, they are stopping short of requiring customers to do the same. Still, you may find stricter rules at certain stores. American Eagle, for instance, is among the stores requiring masks and will provide them to shoppers who don't have them. Shoppers also won't have a choice in states with stricter mask laws like Virginia, which recently announced that all residents will have to wear masks in all public indoor settings, including businesses.

fitting room
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Fitting Rooms Might Not Be Open

Buying clothing without trying it on can be frustrating, but Kohl's and Target are among retailers that are keeping their fitting rooms off-limits right now. Others, like Macy's and Nordstrom, are opening only some fitting rooms to better enforce social distancing and keep track of cleaning. The National Retail Federation is recommending that stores sanitize fitting rooms between every use and that customers use hand sanitizer before trying on items.

Clothing Resale
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Some Items May Be Off-Limits

Ever plucked a shirt or dress from the rack outside the fitting room or a bin of recent returns? Don't count on being able to do that now, as some cautious chains will be "quarantining" clothing after it has been in contact with shoppers. Nordstrom, for instance, will hold tried-on or returned items "for a period of time" before they are returned to the racks. JCPenney will hold returns for three days before they are available for sale again.

Clothing Store Employee Wearing Mask
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Expect More Watchful Sales Associates

Few people enjoy the feeling of being watched while they shop, but expect store associates to be more vigilant as they work to keep stores clean and uncrowded. Nordstrom has said it will station workers at entrances "to answer questions, make sure customers maintain enough distance from each other, manage the number of customers entering the store, and give masks to customers who need them." American Eagle will have a greeter at a "warm and friendly welcome station" stocked with masks and sanitizer. The NRF has also recommended that retailers offer special employee training in anticipation of customer refusals to follow health guidelines.

measuring tape
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Don't Expect Fittings or Alterations

Department stores and higher-end retailers typically have pros on staff to help you look and feel your best, but you may be on your own right now. Nordstrom and Macy's, for instance, are suspending bra fittings and alterations until further notice, and Victoria's Secret has pivoted to a "verbal fit process" for customers who want additional help selecting bras.

Cosmetic Counter
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... Or Any Other Extras

Love spritzing yourself with perfume or testing out new cosmetics at department store beauty counters? Many of these indulgences will be off-limits for now — beauty products are even swathed in plastic wrap at one North Carolina Belk store. Macy's has suspended any service that requires "close contact," and Nordstrom says everything from dining at its restaurants to special events for shoppers will be suspended for the time being.

Apple Pay
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Touchless Payment Is Strongly Encouraged

The CDC recommends shoppers avoid paying with cash or touching credit-card keypads if at all possible. Eddie Bauer has even said it won't accept cash payments right now. Consider checking with retailers to see whether you can pay online, even when browsing in store. For instance, Kohl's customers can use the Kohl's Pay app to check out. Apple Pay and Google Pay, which require only a self-scan of your smartphone, are also accepted at many stores. If traditional checkout is your only option, the CDC recommends using hand sanitizer once you're done.

Woman shopping wearing a mask
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Look for Stores to Offer Private Appointments

Whether you prefer a more intimate shopping experience or simply want to avoid other shoppers, look for smaller boutiques to offer more appointment-based shopping. Major jewelry chain Jared is even offering a "curbside concierge" that combines virtual consultations with curbside pickups, returns, exchanges, repairs, and more.

Virtual Stylist
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Consider Virtual Styling Services

While services like Stitch Fix have been offering virtual styling for a while, the pandemic has accelerated other retailers' efforts to join them. Women's apparel chain Chico's, for instance, allows shoppers to chat with associates who can make recommendations via its Style Connect service, plus make in-store appointments if needed. David's Bridal has launched a virtual appointment service that will help guide brides with style quizzes, measurement advice, and dress selection.

Curbside Pickup
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Expect Curbside Pickup to Expand

In the age of coronavirus, curbside pickup isn't just for grocery stores. While many clothing stores have offered in-store pickup for a long time, most don't even require shoppers to leave their vehicles now. Nordstrom, Macy's, Kohl's, Old Navy, Gap, and JCPenney are among the retailers expanding their curbside pickup programs in hopes of appealing to shoppers skittish about returning to stores.

Clothing Store
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Don't Take Your Favorite Store for Granted

This might be the most important "rule" of all. Many clothing retailers, already struggling from lower foot traffic, have been especially hard-hit by pandemic-related store closures. JCPenney and Neiman Marcus recently declared bankruptcy, and more stores are expected to follow suit. So, if there's a store you love, now's the time to show it — it might not be around for much longer.