Can retailers ensure stores are coronavirus-safe?

Photo: RetailWire
Mar 09, 2020

Suspending in-store sampling, not accepting reusable cups, sending letters to customers and deep cleaning are some steps retailers are taking to reassure customers it’s safe to shop amid the coronavirus outbreak.

A Coresight Research survey taken from February 25 to 26 found nearly three-quarters of U.S. consumers would stay away from stores if the outbreak worsens. On Feb. 26, the U.S. had 60 confirmed cases and the first death was reported on Feb. 29. As of Sunday night, cases surpassed 500 and the death toll reached 21.

Costco has suspended free samples from some stores in response. Trader Joe’s is now handing out samples individually instead of keeping pre-plated samples on a platter.

Starbucks has suspended the use of personal cups while announcing it is increasing cleaning and sanitizing across stores. Store teams were given protocols “on how to report and support anyone that may express they’ve been impacted by the virus, including store closure decision making support.”

On March 6, Starbucks closed one of its downtown Seattle stores for sanitization after an employee tested positive for the virus.

Apple, according to Business Insider, is increasing the presence of cleaning staff, installing hand sanitizer stations in stores and asking employees to wipe down demo devices and surfaces more frequently.

At the Japanese beauty store, Shibuyala, on St. Marks Place in Manhattan, all associates this weekend could be seen wearing face masks.

On Saturday, Nordstrom’s top leaders, Erik and Pete Nordstrom, wrote a letter to customers to inform them that the retailer has increased the “frequency and extent” of daily store cleanings, added hand sanitizers and is taking steps to ensure employees have the resources to stay healthy. The brothers wrote, “We are confident our stores continue to be safe, and we remain open for business.”

Nordstrom’s home state, Washington, has endured most of the U.S. deaths to date and retailers may face strict containment measures, including store closures, in heavily hit areas.

One labor challenge may be dealing with hourly employees who come to work, regardless of symptoms, so they don’t lose pay. along with Google and Facebook have vowed to pay hourly workers as they encourage other office staffers to work from home. Walmart spokesperson Jami Lamontagne recently told RetailWire that the retailer is prepared to  adjust its “business operations and policies, such as waiving absences, as appropriate.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What steps should retailers take that will be most beneficial in reducing shopping anxieties tied to the coronas outbreak? Do you expect that stores will be able to comply fully with directives from headquarters?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"It should not take the prospect of a global pandemic to keep retail stores, restaurants, service centers, airlines, schools, mass transit, and other gathering places sanitized"
"Retailers should not only amp up cleaning measures, but make those measures highly visible to shoppers by offering hand sanitizer upon entry."
"While a visibly stepped-up cleaning regimen is good for morale, there is really very little retailers can do to prevent shopper-to-shopper transmission of the COVID-19 virus."

Join the Discussion!

32 Comments on "Can retailers ensure stores are coronavirus-safe?"

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Joel Goldstein

The outbreak of coronavirus is going to change the near future, however looking longer term other than offering hand sanitizer there’s not much that retailers are going to be able to do. Anxiety will fade as it did when the SARS outbreak and others before it happened.

Mark Ryski

Retailers should be doing what Nordstrom and others are doing – the best they can to reassure consumers that they are doing everything they can to ensure a safe shopping environment. With the stock market cratering, it’s hard for consumers – or anyone – to not be a little jumpy about the headlines. And while the U.S. Government’s response has been sloppy regarding testing/readiness in general, it appears as though perceptions are way out in front of where things actually are. The world has gotten past pandemics in the past and we’ll get past this as well. However, I suspect that it’s going to get even uglier before it gets better. Ultimately retailers need to hold on and ride out this event as best they can.

Paula Rosenblum

I am sorry to sound like Nancy Negative, but I think this is going to be awful for retail. And I don’t think there’s much retailers can do about it, really.

Malls are the biggest losers in this situation. Crowds and no control over what others do are a real “watch out.” Strip malls might do better, as long as shoppers can zip in and out.

Instacart is already a bit overwhelmed with home deliveries.

One thing stores can do is keep their bathrooms clean. Believe it or not, this is a thing. Retailers consistently report to us that they know their bathrooms aren’t clean enough, but they don’t really want to allocate the funds to improve the situation.

The other thing they can do is test their employees. Of course, that implies we have test kits available, and they seems to be a future project. We are way behind the rest of the world in testing,

These are small things retailers can do, but I honestly don’t think they can hold back the tide.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 3 months ago

Great, objective analysis of the situation Paula! I agree, assuming the virus continues its current course, this will be horrible for retailers and malls. There is no guarantees of virus-free stores, as you can’t control the public – especially when people have the virus and don’t know it because they haven’t exhibited any symptoms yet.

Gene Detroyer

You are not “Nancy Negative,” you are “Rosie Reality.” Whether the stores take precautions or don’t, it will be a terrible season for retailers. No traffic, no sales.

Paula Rosenblum

I do have to say this will be a boon for online retailers, assuming they can keep their employees healthy. Discretionary spending may be down (no need for new clothes when you’re not going out) but staples will definitely get bought via online.

Ed Rosenbaum

I think you are closer to right than negative. Unfortunately, some times being right (even when we do not like our answer) means being a bit negative.

Mike Osorio

Completely agree Paula. There really isn’t much that can be done other than:

  1. Communicate clearly the retailer’s efforts, a la Nordstrom;
  2. Ensure all in-store management is well-informed, follows basic protocols, and has the supplies they need on hand.

Other than that, we will need to ride this out. It will pass, but the impact of this will be (and already is) much worse than SARS, etc.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 3 months ago

Over the weekend, I received emails from several retailers telling me (as a customer) that they are concerned and that customer safety was of utmost importance to them.
They outlined what they were doing to ensure the safety of the customers in addition to giving tips on how to protect yourself. This type of communication is important in reassuring the customer base that retailers are being proactive about customer safety in their stores.

Cathy Hotka

Southwest Airlines has sent a similar email. All retailers can do is step up cleaning efforts and reassure customers that they understand the situation. This will be with us for a while.

Bob Phibbs

While I am definitely one who is feeling this has become hysteria, it doesn’t mean you can just turn a blind eye. The important thing is each individual store has to have a meeting and go over personal hygiene, store maintenance, and what to do when someone feels sick. It’s important to get ahead of the news story with what positive actions the retailers are taking so letters to customers, social posts, and limiting talk about it on the floor are all good steps.

Ralph Jacobson

Retail leadership needs to articulate specific countermeasures for all stores to follow.
Field store management for chains needs to ensure execution of each store. Store management needs to set the example for operations and customer interaction, and signage and sanitation supplies throughout the store. Execution is paramount. Period.

Brandon Rael

It should not take the prospect of a global pandemic to keep retail stores, restaurants, service centers, airlines, schools, mass transit, and other public gathering places sanitized. However, the onset of the very rapid spread of the coronavirus has created a new reality where organizations have to take the necessary measures to keep things as sanitized as possible.

The most preventative measures start in the home, and everyone has a responsibility to help ensure that the virus doesn’t spread by being responsible, and practice safe habits. Considering the aggressive nature of the virus one cannot be too careful, and the global anxiety levels are rising by the day. Consumer confidence will potentially take a hit, and we should expect store traffic to diminish over the next few weeks.

However, retailers should follow suit with all major corporations by being open and transparent with their preventative measures.

Michael Terpkosh

Any and all steps a retailer can take to increase the cleanliness of their stores is appreciated by the consumers and the employees. All of the steps discussed help the consumer to understand the retailer is taking this seriously and working in the best interest of the consumer. Flexible work hours and working more from home helps employees to feel they are appreciated and their employer wants them to stay safe. Stores and employees should welcome these new steps. HQs will need to spot check for compliance and enforcement of the new procedures. A retailer can’t afford to publicize these new steps and then not have them executed at retail.

Frank Riso

I think a lot depends on the type of retailer you are! Restaurants and any level of food service should always be deep cleaning so they need to remain vigilant about both their standard and extreme cleaning operations. I also think many retailers should not overreact. Grocery stores with everyone wearing a mask does not help a customer feel safe. A mask will not keep you from getting sick, they are for people who are sick. Sick staff should stay home. Not all stores will be able to react to directives from HQ considering some staff may be staying home or not willing to perform the extra cleaning steps. Basically, retailers should take precautions but not over react to the point that the customer does not feel safe shopping.

Dave Bruno

Calming shoppers’ anxiety and jangled nerves is not going to be easy and, like other commenters, I think there is only so much anyone will be able to do for the next few weeks. I think the best we can do is enhance and upgrade all cleaning and sanitation practices, adjust store experiences where it makes sense (e.g. eliminating food samples), communicate very regularly to both associates and customers, and ensure sick workers don’t feel compelled to work because they can’t afford to stay home. Then we just buckle in and prepare to ride this out. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride, I am afraid.

Jeff Sward

The stores could be kept operating room clean and all it would take is one unsuspecting or inconsiderate customer to sneeze or cough. So of course the stores should be vigilant and thorough, but so should every shopper in every store. We all bear personal responsibility to conduct ourselves in a responsible manner. This is an all hands on deck moment — all clean hands.

Georganne Bender

We posted the Nordstrom letter on our Facebook page yesterday and reactions were mixed. More commenters thought the increased awareness was hurting businesses while others appreciated what retailers and other businesses are doing to keep their customers and employees safe.

We recommend that our clients and followers communicate with their employees, customers and communities to let people know what they are doing to help keep them safe. Communication is vital at times like this. Do what you can with what you know/have, after that we’re just going to have to ride this out.

Cynthia Holcomb

The coronavirus will likely be remembered as the catalyst for increased global sanitation. In the U.S., think of it as the flip side of reducing waste, bringing your own reusable cup, and bringing your own reusable grocery bag. Baristas and cashiers are now front row candidates for coronavirus or any other lurking virus. Not to mention the cross-contamination from one customer to the next customer via the barista or cashier. Delta Airlines’ CEO sent an email to Delta customers this morning. He described the new sanitation measures in-flight and at airports to keep Delta customers safe.

Sanitation is the new customer experience! Visual reminders of sanitation oaths must be present in stores to assure customers the retailer cares for both customers and personnel safety. Who will be the first retailer tied to a coronavirus case? What will that outcome look like? Something for retailers to seriously consider as they promote new sanitation protocols to protect the safety of the everyday customer.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Some excellent points have already been made. The keys are sanitizing (cleaning regularly) all aspects of the store and communicating your efforts to protect your employees and customers. The real concern is that customers will avoid stores. To date, supermarkets, supercenters and club stores have been buoyed by sales that are somewhat analogous to what they experience before an impending snow storm or hurricane. However, if the fears continue and even escalate, then stores will become ghost towns. All the more reason to amp up a retailer’s online operations at the same time as it is sanitizing its brick and mortar locations.

Doug Garnett

Retail will be one of the most evident places where we feel the change that will be needed to respond to the virus. That means we can take a lead in helping society learn the real message here: We all depend on one another. And we depend on others to help keep us all safe.

Extra cleaning of stores? Absolutely. But far more interesting is the reality that we have to balance things like re-usable cups (environmentally damaging) with the presence of this virus (life threatening).

Perhaps rather than focusing on (sometimes exclusively) single-issue politics, we can learn to treat each other better and focus on what really matters: living together as a society.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
1 year 3 months ago

Make no mistake, the impact is already being felt in the states worst hit by the coronavirus and there is little retailers can do to compensate. However what Nordstrom and others are doing is the right approach – over-communicate to your customers and increase every aspect of your sanitizing and cleaning processes in stores, distribution centers, and offices. At this stage, the best approach is one of preparedness and caution. In some cases, services can be adapted to help – Instacart adding interaction-free drop-off to their delivery services. Having curbside pickup options at your stores is another. Malls are most likely going to be hit the worst as they represent large, uncontrolled gathering spaces and many people will be looking to avoid large crowds in the near future. As Starbucks has shown, more training may quickly be required to activate these new processes in stores but, again, the most important thing retailers can do is show they have their customers’ safety in mind and be open and over-communicate about the steps they are taking.

Ken Morris

There is only so much retailers can do other than take common sense measures like more frequent cleanings and reusable cup rules. One thing I believe will help is providing better BOPIS and delivery options. Perhaps suspending or lowering fees during this critical time would create goodwill and help to get customers back in-store once the pandemic passes.

Gene Detroyer

So far, 16,000 people have died from the 2019-2020 seasonal flu. Maybe with these precautions we won’t reach the average of 40,000 people per season.

The retailers are handling this properly and realistically. Though some of it is theater, it is necessary. Unfortunately, most of the contamination in the U.S. comes from people not adhering to common sense actions rather than from casual contact at retail or even in mass transit.