Retailers focus on making safe spaces for customers and associates

Discussion
Photo: Nordstrom
May 28, 2020
Laura Davis-Taylor

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?

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"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."

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


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Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

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

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
BrainTrust

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.

Chris Buecker
BrainTrust

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. Retailers must win the consumer’s confidence. This can only be achieved by implementing a strict, well-communicated safety measure plan. Education for the staff will be another important part. Compulsory mask, contactless payment, plexiglass at the cashier area, regular disinfection of the shopping carts, social distancing marks, drive-thru purchase, etc. Retailers in some European countries built a lot of trust when they introduced special hours for elder customers only. Checking temperatures before entering a store is useless, in my opinion.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I haven’t met anyone in the industry or at the consumer level yet who has told me they didn’t care about safety and living (if they were being honest). That being said, it is critically important that retailers have messages with well-constructed copy stating their belief in the importance of safety, and that they will not take shortcuts on any and all safety methods. You know, I think the time has come to ditch the (sometimes hand written) mundane black magic marker and white sign boards of copy, and have the brilliant advertising people create a graphically appealing “our care and commitment to all of us” storytelling campaign. This can be placed through out the entire store(s) to show the emotion and the seriousness surrounding this deadly issue.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Without a consistent federally mandated stance on proper health, hygiene, and safety measures, there will be a varied experience across retail and business operations as they work to keep their customers and employees safe. There are a lot of uncertainties companies and individuals are working through in the COVID-19-altered world we are facing.

What would give everyone a bit more comfort and confidence are strict rules and regulations from the CDC, especially as the pandemic impacts how we work, educate, engage, shop, travel, and have gatherings. The key to success will need to be around regulation and compliance. Another component of this is the communication, trust, and transparency between the companies, their associates and the consumer.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Clean, clean, clean. Clean off all common areas, touch areas, provide hand cleaning stations, require face masks, and social distancing. Limiting the number of people in a store is often required by a city or the state as well. All of these will make the retail area safe and enhance the customer’s feeling of safety and security.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

The biggest safety variable is shopper compliance. Most stores aren’t willing to enact a “no mask, no service” policy, although that would be a way to stand out and make a clear statement about protecting shoppers and workers. Beyond that, more needs to be done aside from a clerk wiping down carts. What happened to Amazon’s UV robot?

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Whatever requirements and procedures the retailer has elected to put in place should be clearly communicated to the customers. This includes on social media, their website, at the entry to their locations and inside the store. It would be great if there were guidelines established by the CDC but every retail location is different. Retailers must take responsibility for ensuring the safety of their employees and customers.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Who do you trust?

I trust the major retailers. They seem to be taking this seriously (like Kroger).

I have a huge distrust of the smaller retailers and I have seen it here in NYC. Whole Foods is quite strict with its rules — distancing, limited number of shoppers, no mask-no entry. But a famous high end grocer with just one store is the worst. They are not complying and neither are the customers.

Who do I trust the very least? A portion, maybe 20%, of the shoppers who seem to be clueless in caring about their fellow shoppers. And that is saying it nicely.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

You’ve summed it up quite nicely, Gene. One important point that can’t be overstated — a big part of the reason why you’re trusting those major retailers is that they are over-communicating their plans. Kroger releasing their blueprint for business under this new normal is but one example. As I’ve started saying over and over to many people in retail — communication is the new engagement. It’s what consumers want, and that’s regardless of their political position on these issues. Consumers want and need, to know exactly what a retailer plans to do and know that they are executing on that plan.

Brian Numainville
BrainTrust

Our just-conducted research shows that there are several measures that are highly rated by supermarket shoppers as to their perceived effectiveness — things like availability of disinfectant wipes, communicating that sick employees stay home, having hand sanitizer available, and providing gloves/masks for employees top the list, among other measures. Our new research also shows that most supermarket shoppers either only feel somewhat (55 percent) or not at all (12 percent) confident that it is safe to shop in the supermarket. Stores need to clearly articulate what they are doing to make both store employees and customers feel safe or these numbers won’t improve.

Laura Davis-Taylor
BrainTrust

Brian, that would be a fabulous research report to share…

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Very interesting data, Brian. Thank you for sharing.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Hmmm….if you could get a 10 percent to 20 percent sales increase by avoiding losing traffic through keeping your store safe and clean, and make your associates feel better about being on the job — it’s kind of a no-brainer. But I agree with Paula, it can’t be up to retailers to set and enforce health and safety standards, can you imagine if OSHA was dissolved and every state (city, county) did their own thing? Too bad this no-brainer scenario is in the hands of no brains — so to speak.

Laura Davis-Taylor
BrainTrust

Peter, what’s really interesting is to see what the small mom and pops are doing. Unburdened by policy, they’re just doing what their gut steers them to do…and I’m seeing some really interesting signage and procedures. Most, I might say, are telling folks to wear a mask to shop.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust
This comes down to common sense, which seems to be lacking big time right now. Many stores, before this virus, have always cleaned and sanitized their stores in order to keep their places open, or the board of health would shut them down. Now we have upped our game, with extra cleaning, masks, etc. Some older stores simply cannot rip aisles apart so customers feel safe, and policing customers to wear face masks, if it is not mandated by law, is absurd to me as well. Are we going to do this next year, when a new strain of flu hits our country? I personally value my freedom to associate with who I want, and this quarantine needs to end as depression, extra alcohol consumption, and the over hyped up media freaking everybody out, is not healthy for humans. No income also creates more poverty, which in turn makes people sick. The majority of retailers are doing their best, so stay home if you feel the need and let the rest of us get on… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

I mentioned these steps in other comments for previous articles, so apologies for my repetitive drumbeat: 1.) For those establishments where patrons will be seated or standing in place (e.g., restaurants, gyms, etc.), install inexpensive clear shower curtains (or more expensive Shoji screens) separating tables, stools, workout stations, etc., 2.) Require all patrons to wear masks (to be removed when eating, of course), 3.) Drill into your patrons’ brains to “Stop touching your face,” 4.) Renew the sanitation practices that we SHOULD HAVE been maintaining all along way before this crisis, 5.) Lead by example.

jbarnes
Guest
What is required is a standard based upon a national policy. Unfortunately when you don’t have standards and a means to measure compliance you end up with up with chaos. Imagine if after 9/11 (2,977 deaths) you allowed each airline and airport to establish what is safe for their employees and customers. We require a UNIFIED policy for the safety of ALL. We have over 100,000 deaths related to COVID-19 in the U.S. alone and that is still climbing, and I am perplexed as to why we cannot establish a national policy that retailers have to comply with. Why are we leaving this to chance? I live in Wisconsin and unfortunately we have lifted stay at home orders and as a result COVID-19 cases are now increasing as well as hospitalization. We all want retail to get back to some level of “normality.” I don’t see that happening until there is a vaccine. Will consumers be inconvenienced if they have to wear a mask or have to stay six feet apart from each other? The… Read more »
bmeszaros
Guest
1 month 16 days ago

Communication tends to fall flat for retailers. Some understand the significance of having consistent signage that makes shoppers aware of new standards while adhering to the visual guidelines of the brand. I find it inexcusable when you see a retailer using haphazard signage (i.e. tape on the floor) to direct store traffic.

Coming from a digital experience perspective, more should be looking towards implementing solutions that not only visualize realtime conditions in the space but can be used to communicate important messages to their customer. It’s a balance of design and technology that we need to see more of to ensure a safe shopping experience.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
Communication is the new engagement. Customers want and need to know and understand what retailers are doing to maintain health and safety of both their workers and customers before they shop in-store. It doesn’t matter what your position is on masks vs no masks, or any of the other various issues — if they are not communicated thoroughly and effectively to consumers, then retailers cannot expect to see customers flowing into their stores. Communication of course takes multiple forms. Yes, all the information around what you are doing to clean and sanitize your store needs to be on your website and posted very visibly at the entrance to your store. Yes, it should be emailed to your database. Yes, it should be posted to your social channels. Consumers want to see a minimum safety standard in your store. This would be easier with a universal standard defined by a health authority like the CDC and endorsed by the government, but, there’s little hope we’ll see this now. Plus, if you have stores in 48 states,… Read more »
rodgerdwight
Guest

It’s no secret that retail spaces are optimized for profit. Now, however, retailers should be thinking around consumer safety. While we already see floor communication in many stores, there needs to be a total reorganizing of space as we move forward. It would help to create industry playbooks that distribute these learnings as retailers test them in-store. This is a collective challenge that we are facing, so we should also try to address it as a collective.

wpDiscuz
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."

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