Grocery CEO to anti-maskers – Got a complaint, call me on my cell.

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/Drazen Zigic
Aug 20, 2020
Matthew Stern

While the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization both recommend the wearing of cloth masks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and public health experts say the evidence backing their use is clear, they remain unpopular with a small segment of U.S. grocery shoppers. Some have grown irate or even violent with employees when asked to mask up in-store. The CEO of a regional grocery chain in the Northeast has decided that if customers have a problem with a store’s mask rule, they can call and talk to her about it directly.

If a customer enters one of the 25 Kings Food Market locations in New Jersey, New York or Connecticut without a mask, the customer is first handed a packet containing a complementary mask and a card explaining why the chain requires that masks be worn at all times in the store, according to Today. At the bottom of the card is the phone number to contact Judy Spires, CEO of Kings, on her personal cell phone and a message advising customers to call if they have questions or concerns about the policy. Ms. Spires introduced the policy to take potential pressure off of employees confronted by anti-mask customers.

There has been at least one instance so far in a Kings location in which a customer began shouting over the mask rule and called Ms. Spires later to discuss it, according to Today. They agreed to disagree on the efficacy of masking, but the customer agreed to wear a mask when visiting the store.

Masking to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus has become a politicized point of disagreement in the U.S. The lack of a federal mandate has led to rules varying across states, municipalities and business verticals and has created confusion over who is responsible for enforcing the rules and how retailers can enforce them.

Some states have faced further complications. In Georgia, for instance, until mid-August Governor Brian Kemp banned mayors from implementing local mask mandates, going as far as to sue to prevent one from being implemented, CBS News reports. His latest executive order, however, allows local mask mandates.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see Ms. Spires’ strategy for Kings Food Markets as a good way to mitigate and deal with complaints about mask policies for grocery stores? Would you be concerned about the risk to a CEO’s personal safety, or is this an effective way to defuse potentially difficult in-store situations and protect employees?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"This move shows a lot of integrity on the part of Ms. Spires, that she cares about employees, and that she leads by example."
"My questions is, what happens when the person still refuses to wear a mask? Are they denied entry or allowed to shop?"
"Store associates have more than enough to manage — work, home and health — to deal with abusive shoppers. Bravo To Ms Spires..."

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34 Comments on "Grocery CEO to anti-maskers – Got a complaint, call me on my cell."


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

I appreciate the moxie of this CEO. This isn’t about how many people call the CEO, it’s about the fact that the buck stops with the CEO and by providing her cell number, she’s making a statement about the importance of mask wearing in her stores. While there is always a risk of “crazies” doing bad things, living in fear can’t be an acceptable alternative. Mask wearing will always remain a contentious issue now that it’s been politicized, so until this pandemic is under control (or eradicated), retailers get to set the rules for their stores, and shoppers get to decide if they agree or not. If not, shop somewhere else.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust

The idea of contacting the CEO is fine, and if they mandate masks so be it. We are mandated by the state and if someone comes in without one, we remind them to bring one the next time they stop in. Getting confrontational won’t solve a thing. When the mandate is lifted, then I will be more than happy to take down the signs. It has been an awfully rough time for many employees, who can’t even come up for air or drink a bottle of water without someone lashing out at them, and that is very sad.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Don’t you think you put your employees at risk by letting people in without masks? How about instead of telling them to wear one next time, you just give an unmasked shopper a mask? This isn’t about the mandate, this is about concern for your employees and your fellow citizens.

Ryan Grogman
BrainTrust

I think this is a tremendous example of an executive stepping up for the safety of her own associates and demonstrating a willingness to tackle front-line concerns and issues directly, and I applaud Ms. Spires for her leadership approach. While it likely won’t resolve whatever issues anti-maskers might have about shopping with face coverings, it goes a long way towards declaring a willingness to have a dialogue with the organization from the top-down. I don’t see a personal cell number being a risk to safety, although for more prominent national chains it might become quite a nuisance once the number is leaked and creates an opportunity for pranksters.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

I had the pleasure of working with Judy Spires when were both at Albertsons some years ago. My first reaction to this was, “That’s so Judy.” My second reaction is, “She’s right on.” There is nothing better than to take a stand for what you believe and put yourself out there to prove your point. While many “leaders” hide behind workers to enforce their rules, Judy is leading from the front. Bravo!

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I love this move by Judy Spires. It’s gutsy. And it shows that she stands with her store associates who are likely being harassed by people who refuse to wear a mask.

In Illinois where I live it is now a felony to assault a retail worker who is enforcing mask rules. Good. Being on the retail front lines is hard enough without a pandemic.

Stephen Rector
BrainTrust

I think it is great that the CEO is stepping up to deal with situations like this. For a customer to have the ability to go directly to the CEO would hopefully give them their chance to voice their concerns without putting a store associate at risk.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Most won’t go to the CEO. They are happy to confront store workers, but will be too intimidate to talk to a CEO.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Not sure I agree. People who scream, “GET THE MANAGER!” might love this. Posting “You know I told that CEO exactly what I thought…” gives them a new level of Karen cred.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Yes saying “you know I told that CEO exactly what I thought…” gives them a new level of “Karen cred.” But did they really do it?

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Oh, I bet they will. The insane outrage of some customers is — insane.

storewanderer
Guest
1 month 5 days ago

But it isn’t even the CEO’s policy. The CEO is just having the stores follow the policy of the states where the stores are operating which requires the masks in the store. I really think it is to give the store employees/management assistance in mitigating these issues with angry customers.

It is unfortunate it has even gotten to this point where a CEO feels the need to do this.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust

This move shows a lot of integrity on the part of Ms. Spires, that she cares about employees, and that she leads by example. An important tenet of leadership is to not ask employees to do anything you do not or would not do yourself, including personally upholding company policies. This takes a lot of pressure off of employees.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

We’re five months into the pandemic in New York/New Jersey so this comes off fairly late in the game for me. And in the moment when people are shouting at an employee, I wonder how many associates can pivot from taking the abuse to handing the offender a card to take it up with management.

storewanderer
Guest
1 month 5 days ago

It is the way it is being handled by the airlines. Go fly Alaska Air without a mask and after you are asked once and don’t comply you are given a card. The card nicely tells you that you will be reported to their corporate do not fly database and you will not be allowed to fly that airline again.

Yelling customer … manager hands them the mask/card and walks away. Period. End of interaction. Any more yelling and it is time to call the police and trespass out the customer for misbehavior.

Xavier Lederer
BrainTrust

This is a brilliant move. First because it removes some pressure on the front-line employees, who are in a tough position to explain policies they haven’t personally enacted to angry customers. It sends a clear signal to the employees that the CEO has their backs. Second because talking with the big boss calms customers down. I have noticed many times in retail stores that angry customers tend to be more respectful with me as the company president than they are with front-line employees.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

“You don’t like the policy? Take it up with my CEO.” I love this. She has given her employees air cover for the outraged anti-maskers. It is an instant pressure release valve for every colleague in every store, and it’s brilliant.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I love it. Living in Georgia, where it appears many are not smart enough to wear masks or follow the rules, it’s a great way to take the pressure off a local manager. It says we care, it says we aren’t being arbitrary, and it says let’s talk if you have an issue with this.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

Good leaders lead from the front. Ms. Spires is doing just that. Wearing a mask is a proven, effective way to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Retailers and communities that take the initiative and make wearing them mandatory should be applauded. Policies don’t affect change- actions do. Ms. Spires is turning policy into real substance and not just theater where front-line employees are asked to deal with the consequences. We need more leadership like that of Ms. Spires.

Ron Margulis
BrainTrust

Ms. Spires has several things going her way with this program. Kings is an upscale supermarket with stores located in upscale suburbs that likely won’t attract as many mask scofflaws as a Walmart. Kings is in metro NYC, which had the worst of COVID-19 first and has shoppers who are more compliant with the mask mandates as a result. And the stores are in a solidly blue area so politics won’t come into play as much as it would even in Pennsylvania next door.

That said, it is a good idea to make the CEO available and not just for this issue. The buck has to stop somewhere and if the shopper knows where that is she will always feel more comfortable in that store.

Rodger Buyvoets
BrainTrust

This is a great way to diffuse the typical “let me speak to your manager!” scenario. Ms. Spires is mitigating this issue by creating an open connection to every customer – a smart way of dealing with these kinds of complaints. Of course, the bigger the retail chain, the more complex this will become, but I would put the personal safety of employees as top-of-mind here. It’s an important way to say “I stand with my front-end workers,” while also preventing future conflict.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
So while I’m all for celebrating both “moxie” and hands-on leadership, I’m not sure I’m as enthusiastic about this plan as my fellow BrainTrusters. First of all, we are dealing with a largely political issue. There are a few customers who can’t/shouldn’t wear masks for medical reasons. These cases ought to be reviewed on a case by case basis by a store manager. That said, the majority of anti-maskers are trying to make a statement and I agree with Gene that they are likely to prefer a direct physical confrontation with an employee they see as “subordinate” to them than have a conversation or leave a message with a CEO whom might intimidate them. Ms. Spires also runs the risk of being targeted by phone trolls who will just tie her phone and voicemail up for kicks in a pathetic parody of exercising their “personal freedom.” So, bottom line, while I almost always enjoy seeing a CEO get down in the trenches I’m not sure how it solves any problem this time. If there was… Read more »
Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

I love this. She’s saying “the buck stops here” AND she’s taking pressure off her employees re: tough customers that are misinformed about the term “freedom.” (last time I checked you’re free to kill people too but, you know, it’s not a very nice thing to do – this is the same). It’s called taking charge and I would love to see this more often from leadership everywhere in this country right now — we need it!

Bindu Gupta
BrainTrust

Great move by Ms. Spires! This gives confidence to the front-line workers at the grocery store that the CEO has their back. It can be however risky if personal information like the cell number get into the wrong hands. Ms. Spires need to put some safety measures in place as well for this approach to be effective.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Kudos to Ms. Spires! This is a great example of leadership. I wonder how many calls she has received? Were there any that threatened her? Were there angry customers? Were there customers that praised her? I bet her voice mail and text message log has some interesting information about how America feels regarding masks and more.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Forgive me for stating the obvious. No one seems to have a problem with “no shoes, no service.” Nor “no shirt, no service.” Nor, to go on, with “no left turn,” “one-way street,” or “the red light means stop.” One needs a license to drive a car or practice certain professions. Construction workers are required to wear hard hats. We all can continue this list of public health and safety regulations.

Those who object to masks will likely have no problem with the list above and more. And when the CEO points that out, they will have nothing to say, because the issue has nothing to do with masks and everything to do with politics.

This CEO and others not only understand the implications for their workers and customers, but also understand that, particularly in their industry, they are part of a community and society, and that is how they must lead.

Ms. Spires is to be commended for leading like a leader should.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

I think it’s great when a CEO makes themselves available like this to their teams and their customers. I know from my own experience that our front-line teams in retail are getting savaged by people who choose to take out their anger and frustrations on the poor retail associate who is charged with enforcing mandates that they have nothing to do with. I think the package with a mask and a card is brilliant. That is exactly how to handle this crisis.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

The short answer is yes. This approach helps remove some of the burden from the front-line employee. My questions is, what happens when the person still refuses to wear a mask? Are they denied entry or allowed to shop? That either places the burden back on the front-line employees to enforce the rule or they have to ignore that the person is violating their service rules — which then may require them answering the question, why is that customer not wearing a mask?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Steve, the key is, as you point out, this only removes “some” of the burden. Here in Michigan we’ve had several frontline workers hospitalized by anti-maskers. The fact that somebody protesting a mask policy can call the CEO after they brutalize an employee probably doesn’t bring much comfort to the employee.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

Store associates have more than enough to manage — work, home and health — to deal with abusive shoppers. Bravo To Ms Spires for 1. Alleviating them from these particularly unpleasant encounters and 2. Protecting Employees’ health and value to the store and community.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I think this is what we call a “bluff,” in that it only really works if no one — or practically no one — takes up the offer. It probably worked here, a small chain in an area with (as I’ve heard) already high compliance, but how about Kroger or Walmart? I’ve my doubts.

Carlos Arambula
BrainTrust

It’s a very effective manner to empower frontline employees and placate customers transferring their fear and frustration of the situation to retail employees.

I’m not certain if Ms. Spires has placed herself in danger. Other than the narratives and online videos, we can’t quantify how big of a problem wearing a mask is for customers, or even if objection to a mask is warranted — and there appear to be regional differences.

What is certain is that Ms. Spires has clearly placed a priority on the health and safety of her employees and customers and has taken a bold approach that common sense will reward in the short and long term.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Judy Spires from her days as president of Acme Markets. Two things stood out to me then and appear to be true today. First, she was the ultimate customer delight champion. Second, she often referred to as the company cheerleader. Her exuberance and optimism was contagious. I see the King’s situation as a perfect fit to her talents. She is sending a dual message: to employees, I’ve got your back; to customers, I respect your opinion and will not make you go through hoops to express it. Way to go, Judy.

storewanderer
Guest
1 month 5 days ago
This is helpful for the store employees since it pushes the complaint up the chain. At this point we are a few months into masks being required in public places in most states and even in states with no mask requirement, many public businesses in those states have their own mask requirement. This should not be a surprise to people anymore. Whether you agree or disagree with wearing masks, whether it works or doesn’t work (looking at CA’s virus stats where they’ve been requiring masks awhile, answers that question for me), these are the rules in place and as I have been saying lately, “it’s all we got.” We have no other way to fight this virus than these masks (which again looking at CA’s virus stats, we can see how this is working). So it is better than nothing, perhaps. Or so we think. We hope. Folks taking their frustration out on store employees (or, frankly, even the store’s CEO) regarding having to wear a mask, are seriously misguided at this point. These people… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"This move shows a lot of integrity on the part of Ms. Spires, that she cares about employees, and that she leads by example."
"My questions is, what happens when the person still refuses to wear a mask? Are they denied entry or allowed to shop?"
"Store associates have more than enough to manage — work, home and health — to deal with abusive shoppers. Bravo To Ms Spires..."

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