Do retailers need a chief health officer?

Photo: Best Buy
Jun 15, 2020
Tom Ryan

Retailers and restaurants should consider creating a c-level position focused on public health to address pandemic-related concerns, according to a new study.

“Customer experience and employee satisfaction are more dependent on enhanced protection protocols than ever before,” wrote Cambridge Retail Advisors, a new consultancy created by former members of Boston Retail Partners (BRP), in the study. “New C-level leadership, a chief health officer, is needed to establish a vision for chainwide public health and to ensure store level initiatives are executed timely and effectively.”

In advocating for the idea, in an article on, Dr. David Agus, a physician and professor at the University of Southern California, wrote, “From new protocols for elevators and meals to an enhanced focus on employee wellbeing to ensuring sanitized workspaces, there’s a lot to consider on the health front in the offices that some will reenter soon.”

It appears that such a position would be new for corporations, as safety and health accountabilities typically fall under human resources.

In the airlines industry, Delta Air Lines has retained health experts. Ed Bastian, CEO, recently told CNBC, “One of the challenges with this virus that we’re all fighting is that it’s turning a bunch of CEOs into health care CEOs overnight. I’m not a health care CEO, I’m an airline CEO. But we’re enlisting the best medical advisers to make certain that we have insight into everything from the diagnostics and the testing protocols, and what works and how can we translate that into our business model, all the way through the vaccines.”

Retailers have said reopenings are being based on authorities’ guidelines.

CEO Corie Barry said on Best Buy’s first-quarter conference call, “We will likely employ a variety of models using our local level prowess to customize operations to the local situation. And we will continually evolve those operating models based on guidance from state and local governments as well as our own point of view on the proliferation of the virus and our ability to operate in a way that is safe for our employees and customers.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do retailers need to establish a chief health officer role or retain health experts to guide reopenings and prepare for future outbreaks? Where in particular do you see the need for health advice?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Public health crises aren't going away any time soon. Establishing standards and protocols will be an important and ongoing aspect of doing business."
"Human Resources have always been about compliance, and there will be a lot of coordination required in the future..."
"Retailers will need an executive responsible for health issues but maybe not at the C-level. This position could also have OSHA and ADA responsibility."

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24 Comments on "Do retailers need a chief health officer?"

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Mark Ryski

The short answer is a resounding: YES. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the many challenges that retailers – or any business for that matter – face during a major health crises like a pandemic. While common sense suggests that the health authorities and governments will provide the required guidance on these matters, that clearly wasn’t the case during COVID-19. Health issues are businesses issues and all retailers would be well served to learn from the mistakes of COVID-19 and be better prepared for the next one. Having a chief health officer will go a long way the next time.

Lee Kent

Absolutely Mark and I would not stop at pandemic. This applies to any kind of disaster recovery plans and should be addressed together. I am not sure a Chief Health Officer is needed so much as operations personnel and plans with access to medical authorities. I am not convinced retail could sustain such a title and make it attractive to the right kind of person(s).

Bethany Allee

Managing health considerations for customers and employees is part of well-run organizations and it takes shape through operations or human resources. Health experts need guidance from human resources experts, and it makes sense for them to in turn guide HR. The companies I see as most effective in managing the health component of their business in the midst of the pandemic are the ones with strong HR leaders who are seeking (AND LISTENING TO) outside health experts. Huge kudos to the McKesson team for trying to help guide our government and openly sharing data and best practices they’ve been able to obtain to help ensure the safety of their customers and employees.

Liz Crawford

The chief health officer is the next big thing in the c-suite. Whether it’s for COVID-19 or the next pandemic, this role will be increasingly imperative.

Public health crises aren’t going away any time soon. Establishing standards and protocols will be an important and ongoing aspect of doing business. The only part of the title I would add is safety. The chief health and safety officer should also be in charge of overseeing the physical safety of employees and customers, beyond infectious disease.

Michael Terpkosh

Absolutely! Many retailers have a manager or director-level individual to handle food safety, work conditions and recall processes. Wrap all these up with maintaining workplace health into an an executive-level role. In fact, Wall Street should be watching for retailers to establish this position. If a retailer does not, it spells future trouble for the retailer and Wall Street should take notice.

Richard Hernandez

Most definitely yes. I think there needs to be someone within an organization that will be the focal point to work with city/state/national organizations to present clear message that can be communicated to their customers and clients.

Jeff Sward

It’s easy to see how COVID-19 has generated a huge need and demand for the services of healthcare experts to advise on best practices for the re-opening of the economy. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as issuing everybody a mask and a container of hand sanitizer. It’s local. A company can have stores in areas with declining curves as well as ascending curves, so it’s not simply cookie cutter. And some companies might want to enact tougher guidelines than others. It’s about individual opinions and behavior and dealing with those who don’t agree that restrictions are necessary. Best Buy seems to pretty diligent in how they are managing through this process. When in doubt, look for a leader for guidance. That guidance is absent in too many state and national governments. It would be nice to have a un-muzzled CDC on the airwaves every now and then. There will still be disagreement with their guidance, but at least they would offer a high profile public base line.

Georganne Bender

The information about the pandemic changes so frequently it requires daily attention. There is a lot to keep up with, and since it has a direct effect on lives there should be someone dedicated to employees health and safety to create protocol and correctly share the information.

It’s hard enough for a single store owner to compile and update what is necessary to protect associates and customers while staying in compliance with state and local pandemic guidelines. For a retailer with many stores is multiple states this is a communications nightmare. Having a chief health officer on board just makes sense.

Brandon Rael

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked the need to restructure all employee-related and customer-facing operating models, and closely align organizations to the ever-changing rules and regulations from the federal government and the CDC. With so much uncertainty, safety and security are paramount to establishing an environment conducive for what we consider our new normal, which is changing by the day.

As we progress through a post-COVID-19 environment, the world as we knew it has changed and requires organizations to reexamine their buildings, offices, infrastructure, and employee safety protocols, as well as being completely transparent with their customers. A chief health officer and a supporting organization around that role will be key for the short and long term timeframes.

Shep Hyken

This is more important than ever. When a retailer showcases their efforts to provide a safe and healthy environment, it creates confidence and trust. Consumers are concerned, if not downright scared, to visit the stores they’ve always enjoyed doing business with. The retailer’s effort to bring in an expert or hire a full-time CHO will help alleviate those concerns and fears.

Ryan Grogman

Even though many retailers may not elect to add a C-level position, the duties and responsibilities associated with a health officer clearly need to reside within retail organizations going forward, and it will be imperative that it be from a senior executive with authority and accountability. Human Resources have always been about compliance, and there will be a lot of coordination required in the future related to various regulations and the communication to staff. And beyond compliance, being proactive and ensuring the safety and well-being of associates is just good practice and a no-brainer.

Steve Montgomery

Given that the number of employees for many companies exceeds the population of lots of towns and, in many cases, cities my answer would be yes. Add to that the fact that the differences in regulations that govern what can and can’t be done requires a knowledgeable full-time person and staff to protect their employees and customers.

Stephen Rector

Rather than each company going on their own, I wish that the industry could come together to develop industry-wide safety rules and regulations for both employees and customers so there is a consistent message not only for when people go into different stores, but also if someone is looking to switch jobs to another company. Fewer questions and easier for everyone to understand. Wishful thinking, but one can hope!

Zel Bianco

Should there be someone in this position? Yes if you are an organization that is large enough to have one but in many cases, this is not possible. Small retailers and one- or two-location restaurant groups already have their hands full, so how do we expect them to be able to have someone on the payroll that handles this?

This is an area where we should be able to rely on our federal government for an overarching plan. As we have seen our federal government drop the ball many times during this crisis, we have had to rely on the better judgment of state and local authorities to fill this void. In some states and cities, the void has been filled responsibly and in others, very poorly. This is where the National Restaurant Association and NRF have to come in to help the small guy have a chance to emerge from this and be able to stay in business.

Brian Numainville

Yes! There needs to be someone within the organization that is thinking about this on an ongoing basis. This is part of the next normal and will be important to employees and customers alike.

Frank Riso

Retailers will need an executive responsible for health issues but maybe not at the C-level. This position could also have OSHA and ADA responsibility. The current COVID-19 pandemic has set off a real panic but should be part of normal health concerns for retailers going forward. Grocery stores, restaurants, and even barber/salon retailers are more in need of a full time health executive for procedures even outside of the current pandemic and the position could be a part of the HR organization. However, retailers like to overreact and we may see a CHO added to many of the larger chains.

Ananda Chakravarty

Many organizations, mostly public universities and government agencies, have EHS officers that cover all aspects of environment, health and safety. Corporations can have similar roles. Even if only to cover workplace safety – in retail alone, over 400,000 workplace accidents took place in the U.S. during 2018. The function needs to report up to a C-level person for effectiveness. However these roles should not be focused on pandemics (although such officers should have more influence during one). The roles should be part of the usual management staff to handle ongoing issues related to all aspects of EHS – from relationships with medical, fire and police personnel to establishing safety policies across the organization. Most corporations have folks in administration or HR that operates under such a blanket. Not sure this needs to be a C-level position – but senior people in this role must be able to influence the C-level.

Adrian Weidmann
Dr. Fauci stated this weekend that it will be at least another 12 months before we experience any sense of normality in the United States. His guidance along with the increase and spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations, not to mention the large number of people that choose (irresponsibly!) not to wear a mask, suggests that it will most likely be much longer. In order for retail, and the broader economy in general, to continue to function in these challenging times, they will need to address employee and customer well-being and health in a meaningful and measured manner. We have seen and read many statements attributed to CEOs but clearly written by PR departments that attempt to address this issue but lack substance and accountability. Retailers and brands alike need to be proactive and take employee and customer health and security seriously. Referencing and hiding behind government agency guidelines is not enough as we have experienced in the past six months. Taking proactive and measured action and sharing that accountability with shoppers will be invaluable for brand… Read more »
Ricardo Belmar

If there is one thing retailers have realized during the COVID-19 pandemic it is that managing the variability from one location to another on a constantly changing (almost daily) basis is extremely challenging across a fleet of stores. This is especially true when there is a lack of centralized leadership and standards from public health agencies at various government levels. Maintaining health and safety for employees and customers under these circumstances becomes nearly impossible to manage with dedicated leadership within the organization to ensure all information and procedures are up to date and effective. So yes, a chief health officer can help in this scenario for large retailers. The real question is how are smaller retailers, who cannot afford to have such a position, be expected to keep up?!

Ralph Jacobson

Although I try to refrain from making knee-jerk decisions arising from a temporary crisis, I do think health, safety and sanitation concerns in retail have taken a back seat for decades. So if COVID-19 happens to be the impetus for a new C-level position leading those three areas (health, safety and sanitation), then so be it.

Phil Rubin
3 months 8 days ago

It’s easy to support the idea of a Chief Health Officer for employees and customers, especially given the pandemic and the likelihood of it continuing for the next year. At the same time, there are Chief People Officers and Chief Customer Officers and it is also conceivable that an alternative path is to task those C-Level executives with responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of employees and customers (and vendors, partners and communities).

The challenge is that so many companies pay nothing but lip service to the value they place on their employees, customers and other stakeholders. Having C-level executives with such responsibilities is essential, whatever their titles are.

Lee Peterson

Certainly is a position that should exist, but from my POV, not at the C-level. An EVP level within HR? Sure. Too many cooks in the kitchen now as it is, IMO.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

It would make a lot of sense for industry organizations (NRF, FMI) to create a body of knowledge and authority on health, so there are standards and consistency in the industry, and all retailers regardless of size can have the information needed to keep customers and staff safe.

Kenneth Leung

I am not sure most retailers can afford a chief health officer position, however in the short term, they need to retain experts that can be leveraged in HR and store operations to set policies for employees and processes for customer interaction.

"Public health crises aren't going away any time soon. Establishing standards and protocols will be an important and ongoing aspect of doing business."
"Human Resources have always been about compliance, and there will be a lot of coordination required in the future..."
"Retailers will need an executive responsible for health issues but maybe not at the C-level. This position could also have OSHA and ADA responsibility."

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