Is it okay for retailers to ease up on cleaning their stores?

Photo: Macy’s
Sep 09, 2020
George Anderson

Retailers have worked hard to institute cleaning procedures to make shoppers feel safe shopping in stores during the pandemic. Many, if not most, Americans would probably agree that they’ve never seen the stores they shop in more thoroughly clean and sanitized than they have been in recent months.

So, what should stores do considering that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that there is little likelihood of COVID-19 being spread through contact surfaces, particularly when no infected people are present for extended periods of time?

Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said contact cleaning “has been done to excess” in an interview with The Washington Post. “What they really should be doing is focusing on the main routes of transmission of this disease, which is breathing.”

Retailers do have to consider the mindset of shoppers, many of whom, as a Rochester Democrat & Chronicle article points out are continuing to try to disinfect their way to safety, including going so far as to wipe down food and packages from grocery stores. A Deloitte report published in June found that 62 percent of in-store customers wanted to see surfaces cleaned after each transaction at the checkout. Fifty-nine percent were reassured seeing “extra cleaning precautions and preventions” when visiting a business.

It’s clear from observations that many retailers have cut back on the number of hours being dedicated to sanitizing surfaces in stores. Retailers are expanding their hours of operation after having closed locations to perform nightly cleanings. Stores that once handed you clean carts located inside their doors are having shoppers pick up their own carts outside, with wipes for self-cleaning provided at entrances.

Some businesses including hospitals have invested in robotic technology that cleans surfaces using ultraviolet light that kills COVID-19 and other bacteria.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should stores start allocating resources away from cleaning surfaces to other areas? How should they address the emotional component of this with concerned shoppers and employees?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Stopping the cleaning routine that customers have become used to will negatively impact customers’ idea of how clean and safe the store is and will also impact stores sales."
"The short answer is — NO! If you want your customers to walk through their doors, they must feel safe."
"The pandemic is still here. Customer peace of mind is not."

Join the Discussion!

29 Comments on "Is it okay for retailers to ease up on cleaning their stores?"

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Mark Ryski

While the science may indicate otherwise, there is still a strong perception among many shoppers that cleaning and sanitizing is important. Clearly, high touch areas like check outs and service counters should be frequently cleaned and sanitized, however, it seems reasonable and safe for retailers to start to reduce the amount of deep cleaning that they do. But even if the retailer reduces the amount of deep cleaning they do, they still need to be very mindful of the importance of cleaning and sanitization required to make shoppers feel safe.

Oliver Guy

It’s a good conversation to be thinking about – cleaning an area of a store that has had little or no traffic can be of questionable value.
Night cleaning can be difficult in operations where nights have been moved over to being online picking operations.
Anecdotally I did hear of an example wherein a grocer was using IoT sensors to measure traffic by area over the course of the day in order to prioritize which areas need the most cleaning. Combine this with predictive modelling and providing visibility to the store teams and it could well create a significant level of labor saving.

Bob Amster

Stores should not start reallocating COVID-19 resources until there is an official, science-based announcement that the pandemic is now completely under control or ended altogether.

Neil Saunders

At this point in time, cleaning and sanitization remain important both from a protective and a perception point of view. As we move into the busy holiday season – and into the season of flu and colds – now isn’t really the best time to let our collective guard down.

Carol Spieckerman

The real question may be whether retailers should allocate resources away from actual surface cleaning and toward performative cleaning. Shoppers will never know if retailers back off of the vigilance when/where no one is looking, however, keeping up appearances while shoppers are in the store maintains the perception of diligence.

Georganne Bender

Absolutely not. Customers trust that retailers are doing what is necessary to keep them safe while shopping during the pandemic. Perception is everything; when a retailer backs off sanitation it gives the perception that the retailer does not care about customers.

Just because you are over the pandemic it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. Until there is a definitive declaration from your state and the CDC that it is safe to stop, keep on doing the things in-store that make shoppers feel safe.

Steve Montgomery

Retailers have to deal with consumers’ perception. The pandemic has built it into their mind set that the type of cleaning/sanitation that is being done is necessary. Modifying the process in ways like having the consumer self-clean the carts has worked for most people. However stopping the cleaning routine that customers have become used to will negatively impact customers’ idea of how clean and safe the store is and will also impact stores sales.

Dick Seesel

A friend who is an infectious disease doctor serves with me on a COVID-19 task force for our house of worship. He has always argued that ventilation and air circulation is a bigger deal than potential contamination of surfaces, and most science seems to agree.

Retailers would be smart to maintain good sanitary practices — keeping bathrooms and other high-touch surfaces clean — but they would be even smarter to keep the focus on social distancing, wearing masks and ensuring that their HVAC systems are getting the job done.

Stephen Rector

The fact that retailers are considering reducing cleaning hours feels tone deaf at this time. The customer expectations have changed and I hope this “trend” of cleaner stores will be one that sticks.

Art Suriano
I think here we have the issues of consumer concern vs. what is necessary. As we moved from when COVID-19 first started to now, we have learned a lot about how it spreads. In the beginning, there was substantial concern about if the virus could be contracted from touching surfaces, packaged goods, even the mail. That is no longer the case but, unfortunately, many consumers still believe that is the case. Fear is the number one problem with COVID-19. When you look at the actual numbers, we have over a 99.6 percent recovery rate and less than 1 percent of our nation’s population fatality rate. However people do not hear those numbers, and as a result, there is a vital concern they will die from this disease. My suggestion to retailers and foodservice businesses is that they need ALL the business they can get right now. Do not cut corners just yet and instead continue to sanitize what consumers expect or run the risk of losing even more business. This virus hit us quickly, but… Read more »
Richard Hernandez

Definitely not. There is a sense of safety when I walk into stores and see the cleaning being done. To be honest, cleaning should have always been part of relaying a good impression of the store to the customers.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader
7 months 2 days ago

Cleaning and sanitizing continue to be perceived by customers as a protectionary measure and they expect it to be both visible and properly done. That means customers want to see these activities performed in stores to feel safer as they shop. Until the pandemic is scientifically declared over from a widely distributed and effective vaccine, the emotional feeling of seeing sanitized surfaces is not going away. We see this demonstrated in survey data repeatedly during the pandemic and there appear to be no signs of that sentiment diminishing.

Gene Detroyer

Gee, maybe if retailers keep up the cleaning protocols past COVID-19, we won’t have 40,000 people die annually from the seasonal flu?

BTW, there will be another pandemic. Perhaps from China, or India, or Africa or Kansas. Maybe if we keep protocols in place, that next pandemic will be minimized even before we know it arrived.

Rich Kizer

I can’t think of anything worse to do. You have busted your back gaining their confidence by showing them how important cleaning is, and now you turn your back on one of the major actions you took to demonstrate your concern for their safety? What does that say to customer confidence in the store? Don’t stop the cleaning!

Cathy Hotka

Not only is the pandemic not over, it’s more prevalent than it was in the early days. This is no time for retailers to let their guard down.

Brian Cluster

Retailers should evaluate all of their cleaning practices to make sure that they are best suited for the business and the safety of their employees and customers. High touch areas like pin pads, checkout counters and bathrooms are absolute musts to clean going forward. However in a rush to contain the virus there is likely some low traffic cleaning that was instituted that may not need to be completed going forward. Retailers that have shown to be very flexible in their operations will evaluate and revise policies but should remain vigilant in the additional and most critical safety and cleaning activities until the virus has passed.

Peter Charness

I think it’s worth keeping a higher than usual level of cleaning going on in the store, even as a competitive advantage. If it’s grocery, and the store is wiping down carts and checkouts after each use, it’s giving the shopper a better sense of comfort. If it’s apparel, then maybe a lighter schedule is enough. While the consensus does seem to be settling on airborne and not surface contamination as the issue, there’s still no definitive answers. Food is deemed safe without cleaning, except for yesterday’s story about salmon being a seven-day spreader … Demonstrating conscientious care is a good strategy for a retailer to make its shoppers feel safe.

Ed Rosenbaum

In short, no. It is too soon to take a step back on cleaning and sanitizing. The pandemic is not under control; nor are we safe enough to ease up on the safety habits we are observing.

Jeff Sward

The last thing that feels right at the moment is relaxing or in any way letting up on the standards and vigilance being practiced in most areas. Where it’s not being practiced, we have hot spots. It already looks like the U.S. is going to be sicker, longer than any other country. And we are headed into the flu season. Now is not the moment to back off healthy initiatives.

Phil Rubin
7 months 2 days ago

Safety and security as new loyalty currencies (or drivers of loyalty) are here for a long time and that is a direct result of the virus. Consumers have developed new habits like wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. As long as these actions are maintained, if not required, and given the emotional effect of the pandemic, expectations that merchants act accordingly (and maintain clean surfaces) are not going to abate anytime soon.

Shep Hyken

The short answer is — NO! If you want your customers to walk through their doors, they must feel safe. Safe in this world means clean, open space, distancing, employees enforcing the rules, employees following the rules, posted signs or some way to communicate how they are keeping customers safe, and more. As for the emotional component, the leadership and management must remind employees how their health and safety (and that of customers) is the highest concern. They need to be role-models and they need to keep employees in alignment with their standards.

Ken Lonyai

It’s all window dressing in the stores I’ve been to and even that is done so poorly it’s a real joke. I’m certain stores’ interests are the facade of taking action to cover/minimize liability. If this were a truly highly contagious pathogen, most shoppers would be dead by now given stores’/shoppers’ inability to follow guidelines – if they really work.

Gary Sankary

Target’s remarkable report this last quarter included a metric that overall store visits were up from last year. I have to believe at least some small part of that success has to do with their commitment to health and safety, including deep cleaning their stores. Customers feel safer and I would guess at some level rewarded them for it.

Ananda Chakravarty

The pandemic is still here. Customer peace of mind is not. Retailers can become more efficient with their cleaning resources and schedule, but customers still need to see that these procedures are in place. Retailers skimping on these issues can be subject to backlash and deterioration of goodwill. As before outlining the steps the retailer is taking and showing that they care about customer health is always a good measure.

Ralph Jacobson

Well, as a lifelong grocer, I hesitate to cut back on store cleanliness. Period. However, since “hyper-cleaning” of stores has risen during the pandemic, my belief is that it is as much for the shoppers’ peace of mind as it is for true sanitation purposes, especially since I have yet to hear of any surface contact contamination cases of COVID-19. Further, although costs for this hyper-cleaning are huge compared to traditional practices, I can say that it will definitely help prevent transmission of a bunch of other critters, like many strains of the influenza virus, etc. which have proven to be contracted via surface contamination. So, if the retailer can afford it, I’m all for hyper-cleaning.

Craig Sundstrom

Personally, I’ve never thought the regimens were “backed by science” as they say, since there’s little to no evidence of a general spread thru surface contact. So it was always really more of a “making people feel comfortable” move, and whether or not it should continue — at least unchanged — depends on how comfortable people are or aren’t. I’m guessing we’re not quite there yet.

Kenneth Leung

Perception wise, stores need to maintain cleanness in high traffic and high touch areas where people interact. Whether it is COVID or flu/cold, I think visible cleanness is going to be a priority in the short term.