Retailers focus on making safe spaces for customers and associates

Discussion
Photo: Nordstrom
May 28, 2020

A recent survey of more than 6,000 people finds that the best actions retailers and brands can take to receive positive marks from Americans is to keep customers (58 percent) and employees (55 percent) safe.

The study associated with the poll “COVID-19 Brand Sentiment Navigator Report” from Social Media Link also found that showing empathy (40 percent) and recognizing new realities (38 percent) were important to consumer perceptions.

With physical retail getting back to business as states relax stay-at-home orders, top of mind is how to ensure that both customers and employees are safe. A group of experts from design, retail, digital and analytics backgrounds, including myself, recently came together to pen an op-ed on the System Contractor News site that offers antidotes to address this anxiety. We unite around the idea that comfort and safety reassurances will become something people expect — affecting architecture, placemaking, interior design and operations. Solutions will need to address questions including:

  • How many people are permitted in the store?
  • Must face masks be worn?
  • Are sanitation requirements in place?
  • Who is handling product? Are they handling it safely?
  • Will pay stations and other tech touchpoints be made safe?

Over the Memorial Day weekend, retailers I observed were mixed in their approaches. Some had little more than a sign in the window and taped “X” marks near registers. Others had multi-pronged processes — door greeters wiping carts down, mandatory mask requirements, one-way directional flow, sneeze guards, conveyer belt wipe downs and, for more one-to-one services, even mobile check-in and temperature checks.

Retailers focus on making safe spaces for customers and associates
Photo: Nordstrom

Designing for a post-COVID-19 experience, however, will require a balance between delivering enough education for people to make informed decisions on safety and using technology and design to ensure it in real-time.

“During these hard times as well as post-COVID-19,” wrote the op-ed group, “the brands and environments that focus on taking proactive steps to comfort their customers as well as protect their safety and financial confidence will be the ones to earn substantial reputational benefits.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What operational, merchandising and communications best practices should retailers put in place to assure the public they are running safe spaces? What new tricks learned during the shutdown do you think retailers should continue to promote aggressively as they reopen physical locations?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"I think the CDC should create some kind of protocol and then have inspectors make sure those protocols are followed. "
"Who do you trust? I trust the major retailers. They seem to be taking this seriously (like Kroger)."
"Smart retailers can learn from retailers in other countries who have had their stores open already for quite some time and try to understand how they have managed it."

Join the Discussion!

39 Comments on "Retailers focus on making safe spaces for customers and associates"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 3 months ago

What I have seen over the past few weeks since the stay-at-home order has been lifted here has been a hodgepodge of notification. Some places have signs, some have taped off areas, some have pictures showing what needs to be done (social distancing, masks, disinfecting, etc.)
I think some type of notification will be needed moving forward – if only to make the customers feel better about coming to their businesses.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

There are three issues that jump out for any kind of business or organization: Social distancing, masks (if a policy can be enforced) and sanitization. While a lot of the discussion about social distancing focus on capacity control, there should be an effort to reduce the numbers of fixtures on the selling floor just as restaurants in most regions are operating at less than full capacity.

I haven’t been in a Kohl’s store since they reopened here in Wisconsin, but apparently they have removed a lot of fixtures — a big change for Kohl’s. (What this means for “treasure hunt” retailers like TJX remains to be seen.) Stores forced to carry less merchandise and narrower assortments might just find that the customer likes it when she is ready to return.

Phil Chang
BrainTrust

With regards to “new tricks,” I’ve been talking about using “old tricks” to make the consumer shop easier. Bundle high-need items into a value bundles for consumers and make them very accessible. For example, my local grocery put together a summer garden vegetable bundle that sits in simple brown boxes right at the front entrance of the grocery store. This allows me to grab and go – helps limit my exposure to one portion of the store, makes for an easy experience and allows the grocery store to get one more person in/out faster.

Simplifying the shop is going to make the consumer feel more confident about coming back, and help with traffic in the store.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

You’re spot on, Phil. Reducing the amount of time spent in the aisles is the new normal. Remember when we used to want to create an experience that encouraged shoppers to stay longer? Seems like yesterday. Never going back.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

The money is in shoppers staying longer. I believe they will go back — and sooner than later.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

@Phil — clearly many options for retailers to adopt, but customers will still take some time readjusting to the new steady state. What you describe sounds like something that could be done even without a pandemic, and catering to the almighty customer experience (CX).

I’m still surprised that retailers haven’t recognized that there are clear parallels between responding in a crisis as to responding during normal operations — the key factor is CX. I think it’s more about delivering what the customer wants rather than reducing time in store. Customer needs differ and she might be seeking communication, safety, excitement, product availability, expert advice or even company. The grab and go convenience can certainly be part of it. But the basic premise hasn’t changed; retailers’ ability to deliver the right experiences will matter the most, regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

At a minimum, I believe there are three areas that must be addressed for a successful reopening: 1.) communication; 2.) safety; and 3.) space.

Communicate what is being done within the physical operation, on behalf of associates, across the supply chain and for the benefit of shoppers.

Emphasize safety from the parking lot to the checkout. Protect associates (make them part of the solution!), place sanitizer throughout the aisles, and post placards sharing the steps taken.

Rearrange space to allow easier passage (wider aisles, lower fixtures, one-way aisles if necessary, and eliminated congestion zones), place barriers where face-to-face communication occurs, and promote convenience across every category.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

In the absence of a unified national protocol, there can only be a hodgepodge of rules and fingerpointing. To those saying no one will shop until there is a vaccine or every retailer will have all kinds of decals, temperature checks, signs, etc. – look at the states that have reopened. The vast majority who had limited exposure to the virus are not looking for those things and want to resume normal activity. Yes it is a balance, but when one store looks more like a trip to a doctor’s office and another doesn’t, which will the majority of customers prefer? That’s the million-dollar question.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Bob, I agree that people want to resume normal activity — but nobody knows if “the vast majority…had limited exposure to the virus” or may be exposing themselves to it now. Wisconsin may turn out to be a case where the court-ordered reopening, and a complete mishmash of guidance from county to county (and even within counties) seems to be leading to an uptick of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. In the absence of clear guidance, it’s not too much to ask each customer-facing business to put some common-sense protocols into effect. Those safeguards may in fact be just what “the vast majority” is looking for.

Kevin Merritt
Guest

I think it is totally fair to say the experiences and expectations are likely different between, say NYC and anywhere in Wyoming. People (everywhere) have very different perspectives that change daily with the headlines. That said, I see this simply as an opportunity for retailers to differentiate themselves. I think Costco has done especially well in this regard with clear signage, traffic routing, adding extra registers to limit my time in line. They clearly have their act together. Other chains (even within the same area) seem more or less “with it” and that has resulted in me changing some of my default stores. The democracy of the marketplace will take care of this and adjust faster than any prescribed best practices can. I would encourage stores to experiment with discipline. I will also be watching Disney’s response, closely.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Much has been published on this, including a great downloadable (free) extensive PDF from Kroger that I would highly recommend, so I won’t bore you by recounting it. My first tactic as a retailer would certainly be to check Kroger’s process out and implement training, but also to emulate Costco’s policy: No mask, no service. I guess many people don’t understand that masks are about protecting others and are a courtesy to others, NOT about protecting yourself. Maybe they do and don’t care but, once explained, if a customer doesn’t care about others, it’s bye bye for them in my book. I’m exhausted by this age of division and indifference to other humans, go somewhere else and get people sick. Signs would be included. 🙂

Laura Davis-Taylor
BrainTrust
Laura Davis-Taylor
Founder, Branded Ground
1 year 3 months ago

Lee, I am so with you. I spent the entire weekend here in Atlanta perusing stores and was blown away by how many people were not wearing masks or respecting the space of others. Target did a great job with their protocol, but a mom with three kids–all with no masks–were running around yelling and coughing. No amount of store process made me feel safe because of her–she clearly didn’t care about others, and I wanted the store to protect me from people like her by mandating masks.

A new friend pointed out something around this topic this morning, which is that he feels that ‘to mask or not to mask’ has become a political statement of sorts, which makes this issue a bit complicated. To me, it doesn’t matter. It’s precautionary, and it should be safety versus politics. Thanks for weighing in.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I think the CDC should create some kind of protocol and then have inspectors make sure those protocols are followed. Just like restaurants are inspected and graded. This is a public health problem. It should be treated as such.

This is my story and I’m sticking to it. Retailers are not epidemiologists, and district managers are not health inspectors.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I’m with you 100 percent. There needs to be one mandate on how this is handled that is followed by every state and community. It’s far too confusing right now.

Scott Norris
Guest

Except OSHA under this administration is basically refusing to do its job. I suspect it’s going to have to take some serious lawsuit payouts for the insurance companies to come down like a hammer with mandatory rules and inspections. A “free market solution” that sadly that will take too long to evolve, and tens of thousands more will die needlessly.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

I agree, Paula. A clear, and enforced protocol is the way to handle this. Having national CDC health guidelines will also take some of the guesswork and stress out of retailers needing to come up with their own solutions. It will also help set shopper expectations because everything will be the same across different stores and communities.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Most retailers are using signage to communicate their policies to customers. This helps to provide reassurance and allows shoppers to make informed decisions about where and how they shop. Some retailers are going further and are giving out masks, hand wipes, and gloves. And some are being more restrictive by taking temperatures, mandating mask policies, or allowing appointment-only visits. Ultimately each retailer has to do what they feel is best and each customer needs to make the same determination when shopping. What’s certain is that while it is very unwelcome, the increased friction is necessary during this time to protect shoppers and staff. Most people know and accept that. However, longer-term I think retailers will ditch anything that increases friction as soon as it is safe to do so.

Stephen Rector
Guest

Living in a state where face masks are mandatory to go into shops, the local grocery store has that message on their billboard on the highway, posted throughout the parking lot and on the doors to enter. Some could say this is overkill, but I think it’s taking the uncertainty out of the experience. Clarity and consistency is critical here.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

Retail must take an aggressive, multifaceted approach to health and safety. Customer experience and employee satisfaction are much more dependent on enhanced protection protocols than ever before. New C-level leadership, a Chief Health Officer (CHO), is needed to establish a vision for chain-wide public health and ensuring store level initiatives are executed fully and effectively.

I believe a new CHO position focused on customer and employee health needs to be adopted to develop, implement and monitor:

  • Social distancing policies and execution;
  • Store capacity management process, infrastructure and technology;
  • Health and safety responsibilities for store and district-level store operations personnel;
  • Safety stations (facemasks, gloves, hand wipes, temperature checks and basket/cart cleaning), etc.;
  • Disaster recovery updated to include pandemic preparedness.

We need to be prepared for whatever comes next and a CHO is a wise investment given what we have seen and what we will see over the coming months.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

There is a lot of confusion out there as state and even community guidelines vary. In most cases, retailers must do their own research to find what is required, and finding the most recent mandates isn’t always easy. The line between perception and science is blurred.

In every store I have visited the signs are up, social distancing guidelines are in place, frequent sanitation is happening, and mask rules are clearly defined but it’s still up to shoppers to follow them.

It’s tough to be a retailer right now. And it’s stressful. In addition to worrying about reopening the store they have also become responsible for keeping store associates and customers safe. As gatekeepers they need to ensure everyone follows the rules. It’s exhausting to think about. Right now the trick is staying sane while wearing 1,000 hats.