Can associate dress codes support in-store social distancing?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/FG Trade
May 10, 2021

University researchers conclude that the way store associates are dressed offers in-store signals that may be used as part of social distancing initiatives as consumers get more comfortable shopping in stores again.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, professors from Georgia Southern University and University of Alabama pointed to their own pre-pandemic research that showed shoppers are almost twice as likely to interact with a formally dressed employee (i.e., a hair salon employee wearing a white lab coat) as one who was informally dressed (white polo).

The article also cited more recent research showing shoppers still significantly prefer a formally dressed employee over a casually dressed one, even when they are both wearing a mask.

Based largely on those insights, the professors’ suggestions include:

  • Formal dressing for vaccinated associates: Beyond encouraging engagement for shopping reasons, having vaccinated employees dress more formally could encourage shoppers to approach them for assistance while their non-vaccinated colleagues could dress less formally to encourage less interaction. Having more formally-dressed associates could make customers are more willing to approach with questions, thereby reducing excessive time spent searching and touching objects around the store;
  • Color codes: Associates could be assigned different colored clothing based on how comfortable they are being within close distance to others with shoppers alerted through signage at the store’s entrance;
  • Continued masks for associates: With a University of Southern California survey that came in January showing that 83 percent of Americans are more likely to approach an employee with a face mask over an identical employee without a mask, continued employee mask wearing could instill greater confidence in an associate to support more satisfactory shopping experiences.

The researchers said the signals implied from associates’ wardrobe can help clear up confusion over different social-distancing guidelines across states, cities and stores. Wrote the professors, “Shoppers need to remember that not every frontline employee feels comfortable offering assistance right now and can look for cues that would signal who is open to being approached. Ultimately, as social protocol has changed so much in the past year, we all need to learn a few new ways to safely communicate as we navigate through this pandemic together.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Can associate wardrobes help guide in-store interactions to elevate comfort levels for both customers and associates as vaccines roll out? Which suggestions, if any, offered in the article make the most sense?

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Braintrust
"If you told me that once I got vaccinated I'd have to get more dressed up to come to work, I would claim to be un-vaccinated regardless of my actual status."
"In a word: asinine."
"It is kind of like walking into a store and seeing merit badges hanging off employees’ outfits. That’s a reassuring message."

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22 Comments on "Can associate dress codes support in-store social distancing?"


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Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

While customers are raring to go back to shopping and dining, they’re still concerned about safety, and rightly so. Let’s take some common-sense precautions like masking, and get the economy moving again.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Right on Cathy! Keep it simple and safe. Color-coding is too complicated, but I do agree that professionally dressed associates — appropriate to the brand — make shoppers more confident and comfortable.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I don’t like the color-coding of dress code to indicate which associates are vaccinated and which are not. For the non-vaccinated that’s the COVID-19 equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter. Those researchers have obviously never worked in retail – customers don’t need another reason to hassle associates. And other than lab coat vs. white polo, the research doesn’t indicate what it means by formal associate attire. Best Buy’s blue polos and khakis are formal enough for me.

I am, however, all for retailers having specific dress codes. Associates are a walking representation of the brand and should be dressed accordingly. Macy’s works by having all associates dress in black, Target’s doesn’t. Every Target associate wears a different version of the color red so it’s hard to pick out who is an employee. The loose dress code is a flaw in otherwise brilliant marketing.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

You beat me to the idea of it being like putting a scarlet letter on the employee.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Great minds, right? It’s hard to imagine anyone would think this was a good idea.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I’d never noticed that at Target; which I guess precisely proves your point … I didn’t notice them!
(And at Macy’s I don’t notice them ‘cuz there’re are so few of them.)

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

What does formally dressed mean in a non-professional setting? Does a store uniform count if it is tan pants and a red shirt at a Target or a blue polo at Best Buy? I agree being approached by someone identified as a member of the store staff would make someone more comfortable than a person who is not identified as store staff.

I also agree that if the person is wearing a mask the customer is more likely to be comfortable, but I draw the line at having to decode whether the store staff is more comfortable interacting with me at 12 or nine feet away.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I’m not sure, but I also thought it was unusual wording.

Scott Norris
Guest

Yeah, a bit awkward there. I would have used “intentional” or “standardized” instead – as I don’t want someone in a sport coat and tie checking inventory for me at Target. Like Georganne said above, though, the Target staff should at least be in the same shade of red for brand consistency. (At the Kahului, Maui store, the company bought the staff matching Aloha shirts incorporating the Bullseye logo and Hawaiian iconography – now that’s team spirit!)

Venky Ramesh
BrainTrust

Steve Jobs taught us that it is important for designs to be intuitive to create a frictionless experience. Walmart recently redesigned its store layout using those principles by drawing inspirations from airport design – using subtle cues to direct customers through their store and apps in a frictionless manner. I think at the very least this idea is worth experimenting with at pilot stores to see if people really pick up on this subtle design to drive higher safety overall.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

I think this is overkill. Consumers are out there shopping. What we need are employees on the floor who are not afraid of customers. You want to do something? Buy employees buttons that say, “I’m vaccinated” for them to wear but trying to navigate styles of dress and masks is burdensome on everyone.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

This is a bad idea. I am 100 percent in favor of implementing practices that prevent the spread of COVID-19. Target, in Minnesota anyway, has announced that they will still require employees and guests to wear masks in the store, even after the mask mandate is retired on May 28. I have no issue with that and assume the safest measures for all employees and customers is always the best idea.

But marking employees by having them wear distinguishing clothing that denotes vaccine status? That’s way beyond the pale. A previous colleague in this space already cited “Scarlet Letter” which is exactly where my mind went. Last I checked medical records were private, this surely does not align with the that idea (or law).

On a side note, as a former store team member, if you told me that once I got vaccinated I’d have to get more dressed up to come to work, I would claim to be un-vaccinated regardless of my actual status. Feels like a “no good deed goes unpunished” situation.

Rodger Buyvoets
BrainTrust
I’ll have to take a consumer psychologist’s approach to answer this one, so bear with me! Formal dressing for vaccinated associates: Like actors wearing lab coats in toothpaste ads, this one recruits the behavioral principle of authority. It’s a bias that suggests we attribute more weight and conformity to symbols that suggest power and credibility. However this also results in many anti-conformist sentiments (as more and more people are aware of the negative effects of authority). For stores to implement this kind of authority hierarchy is tricky, and could cause a lot of resistance – another bias you want to avoid if the goal is to drive behavior. Color codes: In some ways, this one recruits color psychology. But this is such a subconscious bias (e.g., red = stop, green = go) that for it to really work it needs time to properly ingrain the automatic codes into people. The more mental barriers to learning a social responsibility (in this case, distancing) the less likely people will be to carry it out. Continued masks for… Read more »
Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I am really not in favor of dressing associates in a way that differentiate them one from another along these lines, messaging to customers “I’m vaccinated” and “I’m not.” Think if a customer walks in and tells the un-vaccinated associate “I would rather the other associates wait on me, thanks.” I don’t think that helps harmony in the store. However wearing a badge in good taste that states “happily vaccinated” or something to that effect would be appropriate. It is kind of like walking into a store and seeing merit badges hanging off employees’ outfits. That’s a reassuring message.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

This is all about taking something simple, like wearing a mask, and making it convoluted.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

In a word: asinine.

If better-dressed employees encourage more customer interaction, that needs to be decided upon regardless of COVID-19. The government is attempting to create a new entrenched form of discrimination via its vaccine doctrine where it’s alright to treat the unvaccinated as lesser citizens, despite some raising valid safety concerns and/or being medically unable to get vaccinated. Businesses are mostly lost trying to follow the government messaging and the guidance of their attorneys to cover liability claims, all the while throwing away common sense.

Who is going to standardize what dress codes mean or will each retailer post signage for customers to understand? Who decides when the pandemic is over and dress codes mean nothing again? What if there is another pandemic wave (regarded as highly likely at some point despite vaccinations)? Will each wave have specialized dress codes? Etc. Asinine.

Liza Amlani
BrainTrust

I started out on the sales floor as Harrods 20+ years ago and we were only allowed to wear grey, navy, or black business wear and it helped us serve our customers better – we looked professional and we stood out. Getting dressed up, looking a certain way, standing apart from customers to make them see you so you can serve them better is a great concept. And it works.

Look at Kiehl’s and Sephora – great examples of sales teams being easy to spot and they come across as brand ambassadors which is exactly what they are.

Sandra Gudat
Guest

Am I the only one thinking that asking an associate to divulge private health information (in the form of their dress) is a HIPAA violation?

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Can you explain what your policy would be on schools requiring children to be vaccinated against polio? Would that be a HIPAA violation as well?

Sandra Gudat
Guest

I am not commenting on whether or not we should require school children to be vaccinated (my kids are vaccinated BTW). I am merely wondering aloud about HIPPA and asking associates to broadcast their health status.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

As I read this, I thought about the old survey on communication that talked about the three parts to every message: the verbal, the visual, and the vocal. Then they went on to say the visual part of the message is the strongest. It does not matter what you say. The key is what the visual message is that you are sending. So yes, the dress code will make a major impact on the customer, but it will also impact the employee behavior.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Uhmm, wow … who knew just getting dressed could be so complicated?

With all due respect to the findings, I think the point of uniforms has always been just that: a uniform appearance. I don’t think color coding or otherwise coding apparel makes a whole lot of sense, whatever the short term gains might be (and I would emphasize the “might” because this all seems rather theoretical).

As for masks: again I would go for the “all or nothing” route; anything else is likely to create confusion more than anything else.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"If you told me that once I got vaccinated I'd have to get more dressed up to come to work, I would claim to be un-vaccinated regardless of my actual status."
"In a word: asinine."
"It is kind of like walking into a store and seeing merit badges hanging off employees’ outfits. That’s a reassuring message."

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