How should retailers guide staff through the coronavirus crisis?

Photo: @Maria_Sbytova via Twenty20
Mar 25, 2020
Bob Phibbs

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail Doctor’s blog.

When was the last time you talked about personal hygiene and cleanliness with your staff? With stores still open and others to eventually re-open amid coronavirus risks, meetings devoted to health have risen to the highest priority in order to allay concerns, set procedures and take care of your people.

Here are five things every retailer should be covering with staff:

  1. Personal hygiene. Many tips being regularly heard — not touching your face, washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, covering your sneeze — should be regularly reinforced. Accountability partners can send reminders of key protocols a couple of times a shift.
  2. Personal space. Don’t go in for a handshake or even a fist bump anymore. The prudent thing is to allow greater personal space.
  3. Cleaning. Institute a daily checklist for using a combination of household cleaners and disinfectants. Add extra time to your schedules and close ten minutes early so staff does a thorough job at the end of their shifts.
  4. Sickness. The days of telling people they have to come in are over. You need to consider paid sick leave, too.
  5. Panic: In some years, the flu kills more than 30,000 in the U.S., but as The New York Times reports, the flu isn’t an irrational fear because we understand it, have experienced it and gotten better; we feel we know that threat. If we allow ourselves to stay in fear 24/7, it builds stress that can impact our immune systems, and we’ll be looking at everybody as carriers. To deal with panic, arm yourself with the facts. There is a lot of misinformation and scare tactics out there. You are the one your crew will look to, so check with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for up-to-date information.

We’ll get through this, but until then it is prudent to change the way you do business. You still need to train staff, market to new customers and look at creative ways to get them to return more often and spend more once this pandemic retreats.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Which of the suggestions mentioned in the article do you think presents the biggest hurdle for retailers and their associates? What suggestions would you add for preparing staff to operate amid coronavirus fears?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"These are hard times, and we will get through this, but we have to remain calm and avoid unnecessary panic at all costs."
"Offering bonus pay to staff for risking their own health and the health of their families would be a great start to honoring your staff."
"A retailer that appropriately values and takes care of their front line staff is one I trust more to take care of their customers. "

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17 Comments on "How should retailers guide staff through the coronavirus crisis?"

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Jeff Weidauer

Personal space is likely the greatest hurdle in this list. Retail workers are there to serve customers, and in many cases it’s impossible to maintain the recommended space while doing one’s job. Checkout cashiers are directly in the line of fire when dealing with shoppers, often needing to help with payments, take money, etc.

Art Suriano
No doubt, the biggest issue to deal with is fear. Why? Because we have a country dominated by the media, and they learned a long time ago that sensationalism sells. Yes, we should ALL be concerned about the coronavirus and take ALL necessary precautions, but the amount of incorrect information combined with distorted and twisted facts causes tremendous panic in many people. The other day, a reporter who later had to remove his tweet, tweeted that 50 percent of all Americans could die from the virus. And we wonder why people panic. So for the businesses that are staying open and have employees working, I would strongly suggest at their morning meetings that a few minutes is spent on giving them the facts about how to protect themselves against the virus, such as: Maintaining excellent hygiene; Social distancing; What to do if they feel any symptoms; What to do if they suspect someone they are working with may have signs and is ignoring them. Stores should try at least once a week to have a… Read more »
Mark Ryski

Good list Bob. One more I would add is easing restrictions on staff’s ability to maintain contact with family members during work hours. Frontline retail workers are becoming a critical part of the public health response, but they have their own family matters to deal with — having more flexibility to check in at home will help ease their stress.

Richard Hernandez

All are good points and all are probably being discussed with staff daily. The only thing I would add is that it is necessary to be compassionate those that have older family members or family members with pre-existing conditions who find it hard to interact with customers and continue performing their duties for fear they might infect their family members.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
1 year 20 days ago
These are all great suggestions and very important during these difficult times. I believe keeping cleaning schedules may become the most challenging because it may represent the biggest change to the daily routine for staff. One way to present this to staff is that customers will be wondering how clean the store is being kept as the day goes on and more and more people have come through. When you first open, customers expect you have thoroughly cleaned and disinfected the entire store. What about during the last hour you are open? Customers may wonder and therefore hesitate to enter the store if they don’t believe the space has been cleaned with the same rigor as when the store first opened. Going one step further, be sure and communicate to customers, across channels like email, social, and in the store itself, how your new cleaning routine is being followed. It’s no longer strange to see grocery stores, for example, implementing plexiglass barriers at checkout to separate the cashier from the customer while having the cashier… Read more »
Chris Buecker

First things will get worse, the number of people dying will increase exponentially over the next weeks. This will be shocking to the public and put a lot of pressure on legislators to apply more drastic measures to fight the virus. The first thing for an employer is to take care of its customers and own staff. It needs to be certain that the latter are not exposed to any danger of getting infected. Even if that means that stores need to be closed for a couple of weeks. Lives are more important than business.

Dave Wendland

Thanks for sharing this important topic. Bob’s suggestions are all very good. Top on my list is “wellness” so I would imagine it fitting with Bob’s “sickness” heading. When I think about how to promote wellness, the method is threefold: 1.) Make sure associates know if they don’t feel well that they STAY HOME and that their job is protected; 2.) Ensure that each associate’s family members have what they need to remain healthy; and 3.) Encourage everyday wellness — physical and emotional.

I would add another key topic to the survival tips and techniques. COMMUNICATE. Open, honest, and constant communication is vital at an unprecedented time such as this.

Jeff Sward

By the time people are going back to work, the lessons of 1-4 will have been presented and discussed at length in the media. They are behaviors that now need to become new habits. #5 represents the big challenge. If not panic, the ongoing presence of fear and anxiety must be dealt with. Life is a bell curve, and this won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. The skill sets that managers will have will also fall into a bell curve. Not everybody will be well equipped to deal with an anxious staff. Bottom line, a little anxiety within the team needs to be OK. Support and empathy will have to prevail. “Time to get over it” would be highly inappropriate. And since there are already those proposing that approach, we have to be on guard against it.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Besides the medical personnel, first responders and janitorial staff, the other unsung heroes of this pandemic are the front-line retail workers, especially in food and pharmacy retailing. Customers are in very close proximity to the cashiers and baggers. Recently, Publix, Shoprite and other food retailers have been installing plexiglass shields in the checkout aisle. More can and should be done to protect staff and customers who need to acquire these necessities during these times. As an example, In South Africa food retailers have placed circular waiting spots six feet apart in checkout lines. Next time you are in a drug store or food retailer, take the time to thank these heroes for taking care of us. This is medicine that all can enjoy.

Ralph Jacobson

In the food retailing business, we have done personal and work area hygiene for decades, so I’d like to think those issues are nothing new to most of us in that business. However as a “touchy-feely” kinda person, I’m generally the first to extend my hand for a shake. This will be a tough habit to break for many, and it will be difficult to replace it with something else long-term as a new habit. I’m thinking store managers should lead by example by either waving hello from a safe social distance, or starting something new, like a greeting bow as in Asia.

Neil Saunders

All of the suggestions are sensible and are things that will become much more critical going forward. The one thing that is a shame is distancing between customers and staff. Protections like sneeze guards at registers are vital, but it is a shame that physical distance between customers and staff will become more common. Retailers need to think about how they can deliver personal service while keeping their employees and customers safe.

Susan O'Neal
1 year 20 days ago

While I’m not aware of all retailers’ decisions, the one I am aware of – which I am most impressed by – is Wakefern/ShopRite. Not only have they done everything they “should” do – they have gone above and beyond in the care of their store associates first by simply and publicly saying “thank you” to them for being on the front lines and taking on all the extra work that entails, but also by temporarily INCREASING wages and offering enhanced sick and leave benefits. It reminds me of the airline safety guidance to secure one’s own oxygen mask first before helping others. A retailer that appropriately values and takes care of their front line staff is one I trust more to take care of their customers. Such steps are an investment in the long-term loyalty of associates and customers.

Cynthia Holcomb
According to Zip Recruiter as of March 18, 2020, the average retailer worker makes $23,601.00 per year. Cashiers, grocery store personnel, and employees wiping the handles of shopping carts in an effort to keep the public safe have become part of our individual front line defense to the coronavirus. These folks are risking their own health to make sure all of us reading this comment have the food and supplies we need to survive through the pandemic. Most do not have health insurance, as they are hourly employees. Yet these workers continue to work to care for us through this national disaster. In staff meetings, thank your staff for their service; pay respect. Offering bonus pay to staff for risking their own health and the health of their families would be a great start to honoring your staff. Senior management, from the comfort of their own health insurance, could rethink how to provide health insurance for their brave hourly workers. Of course life is not fair. But not offering health benefits to low-wage retail workers… Read more »

These are good things to cover with staff amid this outbreak. I would also urge small business owners to listen to their staff at this time.

There are a couple of good reasons for that:

  • We are in unprecedented times and communication can reduce stress and anxiety related to that:
  • We all want to do the right thing and no one has a monopoly on good ideas;
  • We want to do our best and to get the best performance out of every resource we have, reduced stress and open communication can help with that;
  • We want to know the best way to reach and keep our customers, employees have a different perspective right now;
  • It’s free!

So definitely tell your employees to practice distancing and keep them informed, but don’t forget that listening is half a conversation.

Meaghan Brophy

This is a great list, Bob. I would also add that retailers need to ramp up and establish tighter protocols around store cleaning. Also, they must work together with employees to come up with best practices around minimal contact checkouts with options like:

  • Implementing contactless payments;
  • Setting guides for customers to maintain social distance while waiting in line;
  • Bringing online or phone orders out to customers’ cars.

The other thing retail managers need to keep top-of-mind is that their employees are going through a lot right now with kids being home from school, having sick or at-risk family members, trying to provide great service to on-edge customers, and the stress of employees putting themselves at risk by coming to work every day.

Craig Sundstrom

Hygiene: it’s hard to “wash your hands” every few minutes when you’re constantly waiting on somebody … the “minimal staffing” model that has become ever more popular in recent years really hurts on this one.

Kai Clarke

Retailers need to guide their staff to protect themselves with personal protective equipment, just like a hospital. They should be trained to protect themselves, and then ensure their customers are safe as well.

"These are hard times, and we will get through this, but we have to remain calm and avoid unnecessary panic at all costs."
"Offering bonus pay to staff for risking their own health and the health of their families would be a great start to honoring your staff."
"A retailer that appropriately values and takes care of their front line staff is one I trust more to take care of their customers. "

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