Do retailers need to go beyond ‘reopening playbooks’?

Photo: Kroger
Jun 02, 2020
Adrian Weidmann

Many retailers emerging from the COVID-19 quarantine have created business reopening playbooks. These include wide-ranging strategies founded upon social distancing, limited occupancy and extensive sanitizing procedures. The objective is to convey trust and credibility that their business is a safe environment for shoppers and store employees. We’ve already seen numerous commercials showing masked employees wiping grocery conveyor belts, etc.

Technology providers are presenting a myriad of coronavirus-inspired offerings to facilitate reopening, including hand sanitizer dispensers, thermal imaging and computer vision cameras for taking customers’ temperature (and their photo), footfall traffic sensors for occupancy measurement and analytics data, floor decals and signage for communicating social distancing and directional traffic patterns, along with numerous mandatory hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing procedures and cycles.

McDonald’s is requiring that bathrooms, the front service counters and all “high-touch” hard surfaces be sanitized every 30-minutes and self-order kiosks and dine-in tables “after every use.” Employees are expected to wash their hands every 30-minutes.

Reopening playbooks and opportunistic devices make many promises but beg the question, “So what?” What do you do when your device alerts you that a shopper has a temperature of 101°F? I can only imagine the legal ramifications (HIPAA) of emailing a person’s identity and their temperature through unsecured systems. How do you, or your shoppers, know that sanitizing is being done?

Many of these efforts make for good optics but lack substance. This was substantiated during a recent conversation with a retail manager in which she commented on all the visual references to cleaning and sanitizing in her company’s advertising, but said “all I see in the store is a person without a mask mopping the floor.”

One element missing is accountability, which is critical to building trust and credibility with shoppers and employees. The ability to certify, audit and trace incidents and prove that mandatory procedures were followed will help expedite the return to a new normal. A quote in McDonald’s playbook — “We only get one chance to do this the right way” — amplifies the importance of these requirements for the brand.

The benefits of a task and training datalogging, reporting, dispatching and responding application include:

  1. Accountability for brand/corporate requirements for COVID-19 response and beyond;
  2. Visibility and reporting across all tiers and disciplines of corporate management;
  3. Compliance and traceability of required workflows and processes;
  4. Audits and affidavits for legal protection;
  5. Certification and affirmation for customers and employees.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think documented accountability matters more now as stores reopen, or will customers trust the optics, quickly forget the threats and return to shopping as usual? In what ways can retailers best assure compliance of COVID-19 procedures at store level?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Keep it simple – do at least what corporate says to do. If someone asks what that is, have a handout showing what that is. And then focus on business."
"Playbooks are helpful, but no match for human irrationality."
"There has always been a gap between corporate strategy and field execution, and local leadership and training makes the difference."

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31 Comments on "Do retailers need to go beyond ‘reopening playbooks’?"

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Dave Bruno

I could not agree more, Adrian. Governance and compliance are hugely important issues just lurking around the next corner, and I have not yet seen evidence that many retailers have plans in place to ensure safety protocols are consistently enforced. Operations management needs to assign responsibility and accountability to senior store staff, they need to implement consistent communication programs, regular audits and rigorous reporting processes -and they need to do so quickly. Cleaning logs hanging on the back of bathroom doors are no longer even close to good enough.

Brian Cluster

The playbooks are likely very complete in terms of cleaning various areas of the store, handling of food, managing customers that are not following the rules, and establishing a protocol for employees and their behavior and processes. But I believe that in these trying times, there has to be a balance between the stick and the carrot.

The retailers are asking the right questions and planning to make the store environment as safe as possible. But how might they make it more enjoyable for their employees which will reflect positively on the customer interactions? With all of this reporting and auditing, is there an opportunity for individual stores to have a reward at the end of the month, a “socially distancing employee party” or some other fun perk that recognizes their hard work and adherence to the new policies?

Suresh Chaganti

The challenge for retailers is that most of the protocols are recommended and not legally mandated. That means optics become very important. Conscientious retailers can be expected to make good faith efforts, but these protocols become expensive to maintain. Like everything else, probably there will be good/better/best variants to start with and retailers will eventually return to an average level based on what everyone else is doing.

Georganne Bender

My personal observation is that most shoppers are more interested in being back in stores than they are in all the safety measures. In Illinois masks are required, and although things about shopping right now are different, customers seem to have adapted to the changes and have moved on.

I visited a Von Maur department store in Wisconsin where masks are recommended; I saw few shoppers wearing them and social distancing for the most part was not being practiced. Store associates were all masked, and safety protocols were in place, but customers seemed oblivious to everything but shopping.

And maybe that’s the thing: We have read so much about what retailers are doing to keep us safe that we just assume we will be fine on the sales floor. For all of the pontificating about how retail will be impacted forever you would think it’s a whole new world on the sales floor. It’s not. Obviously, someone forgot to tell the customer.

Brandon Rael

Spot on as always Georganne!

Georganne Bender

Thanks, Brandon! Shoppers are resilient.

Brandon Rael

Yes! Especially when retailers, economists, consultants, and other experts underestimate their resiliency and ability to adapt.

Richard Hernandez

Customers are more savvy than they are given credit for. It is great to have procedures documented, but it’s the execution that will make or break customer trust in the retailer. Additionally, employees have to believe in what is being asked of them as well. If you don’t have both, it can spell a bad time for a comeback to normal by that retailer.

Bob Phibbs

I agree on this. Whether you like it or not America is ready to move on to the next crisis – cities burning. I’ve seen playbooks of up to 78 pages for a retailer – really? Who thinks that will happen in the field? Not me. And all of these additional ideas have a cost and a result. Simplicity will be the best tactic going forward that can be repeated for months. I don’t think America is ready to do appointment-only/scanning every forehead/etc. and have the joy of shopping feel like a trip to a sick ward.

Ken Morris

I believe documented accountability is a requirement as we reopen. We need to maintain the trust factor with the customer base. Operating and shopping as usual is not the playbook going forward. We have been changed forever, like it or not, and we need to change the game. The compliance workflow idea resonates with me as one of the go forward keys to long term success. Tools like Reflexis, Opterus, ThinkTime and Workjam can be leveraged to enforce accountability with their closed loop notification and escalation capabilities.

Jeff Weidauer

The focus so far has been on optics: hand sanitizer, floor decals, a clerk wiping down carts. The measures have no teeth, and stores are forced to decide what to enforce and how to enforce it. Customers are ready to get back to normal and will quickly forget the hardships, but the risk remains and retailers will be held accountable over the long term.

Laura Davis-Taylor

I agree, and the jury is still out. One thing I believe strongly is that the concern is not if the store is safe … it’s if the store is taking measures to protect them from the other shoppers that don’t care about the health and wellness of others, thereby bringing safety concerns with them as they leave their mark on the store environment. And let’s be real, that was a thing before COVID–it’s just that now it has more dire consequences.

Like everything else in relation to retail stores, the CX designed around this is key. Part of that is ensuring that shoppers know that a safety protocol is a secured safety measure, not just an operational process box check. Optics go both ways.

Bob Amster

This is a function of company culture and, within that culture, how and how often must corporate leadership drive the message down to the lowest level of the field organization. Retail has the (technical) tools. Retailers can produce videos for stores’ hourly and managerial personnel to view. They can deliver audio messages to all store personnel (I am working with a product company that does exactly that, and very effectively). They can drive appropriate and catchy signage (whether hard copy or digital) that drives home the concepts and the protocols for re-opening safely, and they should create a help desk group within the operations department that will answer questions and take on suggestions from the field. It’s all question of how important top management perceives these actions to be.

Cathy Hotka

The Store Operations Council is prepping a follow-on document to Reopening Retail Safely; our main finding is that leadership is the most important factor in a successful reopen, not cleaning tactics. Think big, retailers!

Dr. Stephen Needel

It’s all about the optics and very few will really care what you, the retailer, are doing. Those who care deeply are also likely to be those who are going to be skeptical of whatever you tell them or show them. Keep it simple – do at least what corporate says to do. If someone asks what that is, have a handout showing what that is. And then focus on business.

Ben Ball

Would you still be taking your shoes off to go through airport security if the TSA didn’t police it? Of course shoppers will consider most of this optics — particularly actions they are required to take — and will abandon them quickly as the virus fades. After all, how deadly was shopping without a mask pre-COVID-19? As for retailer actions, those that are static will remain. Plexiglass screens at checkouts. Touchless payment and delivery where possible. Those that require documented accountability such as more frequent cleaning will depend on the retailer. But retailers should remember that clean bathrooms always increase customer retention and loyalty. Improved practices that are visible to shoppers will do the same, COVID-19 or not.

Zach Zalowitz

These measures are only good to the extent that people are notified of them and see and perceive them as being done. As an example, for a grocery store that has been open all along, it’s critical someone near the grocery carts is seen at all times, reassuring that the carts are indeed clean and ready to use. Similarly, I think people are going to look to the traditional retailer to tell them what measures they’re taking and, importantly, to see those measures being reinforced verbally and optically to give reassurances that they’re in a safe and “clean” environment. One thing for sure, nothing is going to be normal for a long time, and I imagine these playbooks become game plans for what the new normal becomes.

Ryan Grogman

They were and are a great first step, but retailers across all segments absolutely have to move beyond the playbooks and customer-facing signs. Shoppers ultimately spend their money with brands they trust, and that trust is now extending beyond traditional product quality and value into their own health concerns. As stories continue to emerge about how retailers are handling non-compliant employees or patrons, customers will have to decide if the right accountability measures are in place for them to maintain their trust in that brand.

Ryan Mathews

Playbooks are helpful, but no match for human irrationality. Even though we are still locked down in Michigan people are walking around unmasked en masse, garage sales are starting to open up, and I see more people walking into stores without masks, without observing social distancing rules, etc. Thirty minutes is a lot of time for contagion to spread, so how comfortable are customers concerned about COVID-19 ever going to be in those McDonald’s restaurants or knowing it’s been a half an hour since the person touching their food washed their hands? Bottom line: it all depends on what happens. If people start dying again we have one scenario. If they don’t, we’ll see.

Gene Detroyer

From what I have seen so far, the people who work in the stores are the most careful. I have seen similar personal safety precautions from workers no matter if the store is highly compliant or not.

What worries me is the customers. As time has gone on, they seem to be more and more relaxed about safety.

Certainly all retailers should give consistent guidance to appropriate protocols. But let’s think a minute. Who is at the biggest risk? Those who work in the stores and see a multitude of people coming into their store in an hour, a day or a week or the the shopper who comes in contact with a very few store personnel for a limited time?

Ralph Jacobson

This is all about the perennial challenge of retail execution. Forever, stores have been challenged to reflect corporate leadership’s directives, whether it be merchandising, promo displays, or in this case safety and sanitation guidelines. True leadership with prevail at those retail companies that take this seriously.

Brandon Rael

Our new normal is changing by the day, so any documented reopening playbook will have to be a living breathing, organic, and evolving document. The playbook will represent the foundation retailers and consumer-facing organizations could start with, however it will all come down to execution on the sales floor, and part of the new culture companies will need to provide a safe and sanitary place to shop.

There also has to be a close alignment with the local governments to ensure that the stores and restaurants are compliant with the changing rules and regulations. Retailers will have to ensure that their store associates are well-trained, empowered and have a full understanding of what it takes to run a safe retail operation in our post-COVID-19 world.

Dave Nixon

Brandon — 100% agree! I suggest more of a framework approach than a documented policy standard, and it needs to be dynamically refreshed as times and needs change.

Mark Price

Consumers will not forget the impact of the pandemic at any time real soon. It is critical for retailers to make sure that they are addressing consumer safety issues in a consistent, verifiable and transparent manner. In order for the stores to assure compliance of procedures, both systems and values must be addressed. The real reason for all these procedures is to keep your customers safe from harm. The only way to ensure adherence to the procedures is to instill that value clearly in the store associate level; otherwise, the associates will find ways to short change the procedures over time.

Harley Feldman

Documented accountability of the processes retailers are using to re-open their stores is an important tool to ensure that the stores are safe places for their employees and customers. The data is more important to the store as the customers will assume the retailer is doing everything to make their stores safe. As customers have good experiences in stores and feel comfortable shopping, it will not take long for things to get back to shopping as usual.

Retailers can best assure compliance by establishing CDC standards of social distancing, cleaning, facemasks, etc., then tracking how the standards are measured and followed.