Retailers need to prep for in-store COVID conflicts

Sources: NBC2 News, CBS Miami, CGTN
Oct 19, 2020

The NRF Foundation has partnered with the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) to develop online training tools to help retail workers prevent and de-escalate in-store conflicts, particularly around social distancing, mask and capacity issues.

Retail employees have had to deal with minor and major confrontations on selling floors since the pandemic emerged, largely over mask mandates. Scenes of “anti-maskers” berating store associates or being called out by other shoppers have gone viral across social media. Some incidents have led to violence.

The training covers mask requirements for shoppers, shopper-to-shopper conflicts and line management. Approaches include active and empathetic listening, withholding judgment, allowing silence, clarifying messages, developing a plan, recognizing personal-limits and de-briefing.

In the online training, “one of the major scenarios is around an employee asking a customer to wear a mask, and he reacts,” Adam Lukoskie, VP of the NRF Foundation, the trade group’s nonprofit arm, told The New York Times. “There’s another scenario where a mother and child are there and are upset this gentleman is not wearing a mask so then the employee has to help make peace.”

Among the de-escalation tips offered by CPI:

  • Understand that behavior is communication: Look for signs of anxiety in body language, tone and cadence. Consider what it is the other person might want.
  • Avoid the power struggle: Challenging or exercising authority over a person can escalate negative behaviors. Consider options that offer flexibility to address both parties’ needs and desired outcomes.
  • Use limit setting: Setting limits can influence behaviors. Framing acceptable behaviors or outcomes can encourage the other person to choose the most productive option.
  • Practice rational detachment: Don’t take behaviors personally.
  • Develop therapeutic rapport: Learn from the conflict and help the other person learn from the experience. Put time and effort into repairing the relationship.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What obvious and less obvious advice would you have for store managers and associates on how to prevent and de-escalate conflicts over COVID-19 requirements? Is the tension around in-store mandates lessening and will it become a non-issue in the months ahead?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"There are things that front-line in-store workers shouldn't have to sign up for. Once a conflict starts, it's time for them to press a button, call security, and step away."
"Hire private security to deal with those looking for Instagram fame. It is not up to employees to have to deal with this crap."
"This is a serious and sad situation and another example of why store associates need to be appropriately compensated for their essential role in our communities."

Join the Discussion!

29 Comments on "Retailers need to prep for in-store COVID conflicts"

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Mark Ryski

The situation can be difficult, awkward and even dangerous when people get belligerent. Approaching the situation with empathy is the best approach. Try to understand the customer’s situation and de-escalate as best you can. If the customer is unreasonable, enforce your store’s policies including removal from the store. There are no easy answers for dealing with emotional issues and irrational people. All store staff can do is their best.

Neil Saunders

Sadly, there are all too many conflicts over mask-wearing and other COVID-19 related requirements that have made this training necessary. Ultimately while I think training is a good thing and will help, it will not de-escalate every situation. Advice such as offering options to provide flexibility will not work in every case. After all, if a retailer or law mandates a mask to be worn the outcome is binary: wear or mask or don’t; if you don’t, then stay out of the store. Ultimately, the responsibility of front-line retail workers should only go so far. Security and law-enforcement should have to deal with the worst and most aggressive offenders.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
1 year 8 months ago

So we have seen some very bad (and sad) outbursts on social media when it comes to wearing masks. I would be hopeful that as the holiday season approaches, customers that enter stores requiring masks will comply more readily instead of causing a scene.

Paula Rosenblum

Mask wearing has somehow become politicized (I wonder how!). We need security guards in stores specifically for this reason. And while I prefer they not be, I fear they may need to be armed.

This situation is only going to escalate after election day. Count on it. Whether or current president wins or loses, his most ardent backers will have chips on their shoulders and will be more determined than ever.

There are some things that front-line in-store workers just shouldn’t have to sign up for. Once a conflict starts, it’s time for them to press a button, call security, and step away.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Laura Davis-Taylor
Founder, Branded Ground
1 year 8 months ago

Fully agreed Paula. This should not be on the associate to have to deal with — they don’t make enough money and training is already challenging. All they can say is, “these are not my rules, but everyone has to abide by them or I have to ask for security to step in to speak with you.”

Steve Montgomery

I don’t disagree with your final sentence about calling security. However for many smaller retailers there is no security person to call. They either can’t afford to pay the cost for a trained security person/services or for whatever reason have elected not to do so. In my experience the former is generally the reason. One example would be the 140,000 c-stores, more than half of which are owned by independent operators.

Ed Rosenbaum

Well said Paula. This could get worse after the election depending on the outcome. The pay rate and job description does not include putting their life or body at risk; especially if the person is trying to become a Twitter fool.

Shep Hyken

Let’s take a lesson from Delta Airlines. They make their policy clear: Unless eating or drinking you must wear a mask or you will be asked to leave (if the plane has not taken off) or could be banned from flying future flights. Policy is clear. The offender, if they do not comply is given a card with the policies to read. Further “offending” brings consequences. A recent article stated that since late August, 240 passengers have been added to Delta’s No-Fly list. It’s not easy to say goodbye to a customer in any business, but the retailer that makes their stance clear is making a statement that they put the health and safety of their customers ahead of everything else.

As for training, I would be interested in seeing some type of video training that is generic and could be used by any retailer. (Maybe I’ll work on that today! 🙂 )

Ron Margulis

As with all crisis response, the key for successful resolution is practice. Retailers should have trainers in the stores acting out “bad customer” scenarios and pointing out what works best to de-escalate each situation.

Bob Phibbs

I would put the total number of people who had COVID-19 or died from COVID-19 in your state or county up at the front door. Wear a mask, no exceptions. Hire private security to deal with those looking for Instagram fame. It is not up to employees to have to deal with this crap.

Heidi Sax

These incidents are quickly escalating beyond what you can expect retail staff to handle. Have store managers spend a greater share of time on their floors ready to spot tensions as they arise. Then make sure they have ways to quickly reach law enforcement if they feel unsafe and that they know how to keep everyone calm while they wait for help. Ideally, put security in your stores. While this tension will eventually lessen, I don’t see the election fervor and impending second wave helping in the near term.

Gary Sankary

I applaud NRF for doing this. Our front-line teams in retail have been taking the brunt of the anti-mask crowd’s ire since the beginning. The good news is, at least the retailers that I work with are reporting that confrontations with this crowd have dropped off significantly. I have to believe that if you’re a zealot who wants to argue with strangers about masks every time you walk into a store, you have to be getting pretty exhausted by now. That said I do think de-escalation training for front-line retail teams is a great idea, pandemic aside. Dealing with angry customers is fact of life for our teams. Giving them the tools to effectively deal with the issue seems like a no-brainer.

Cathy Hotka

I empathize with smaller footprint stores that cannot afford to have security guards. These selfish, lawless bozos need to be escorted from the premises.

Bindu Gupta

While in-store conflicts over wearing a mask are still an issue, it should not be the store associate’s responsibility to handle it on top of everything else they are already doing. This can only lead to more stress on their part. Retailers need special security personnel to handle such situations and prevent entry to anyone who is not wearing a mask in the first place to avoid major conflicts later on.

Dave Bruno

While I appreciate the effort by NRF to support the stores with these training tools, it is just far too much to ask of a store associate to mitigate these types of conflicts. At the same time, the cost of full-time security is prohibitive for most retailers. There are no easy answers here, but from what I can tell, it does seem that the frequency of these confrontations appears to be diminishing. Let’s hope that soon this becomes a non-issue.

Adrian Weidmann

This is an unfortunate issue and a byproduct of the state of our polarized politics. I concur with Paula that this will get worse not better after the forthcoming election. This is yet another issue that retailers must proactively address in order to provide a safe working AND shopping environment. Putting front-line employees in harm’s way with a simple means to deliver an SOS alert should be mandatory. I have been exploring how to address this specific issue with technology and have found a mobile application that not only allows for an SOS alert but also automated contact tracing for employees.

Gene Detroyer

Fortunately I live in Manhattan and most, 90 percent-plus, wear masks and in some neighborhoods it is even higher. (Maybe this why we have been successful here?)

I feel for the store associates. They are in a difficult position. They are dealing with a totally irrational and emotional behavior. That is tough to neutralize. They will not win an argument, as right as they may be.

As best as possible, have security deal with these issues.

Georganne Bender

Judging by the posts and comments on community Facebook groups as of late I think this is going to get worse as we get closer to the election and the holidays. It should never be up to a front-line employee to address or diffuse an angry situation but we know that it happens. I am glad that the NRF Foundation is offering guidelines and training, unfortunately in some situations it will take more than that.

Ryan Mathews
I live in Michigan where a frighteningly large percent of the population is still mourning a recent decision that bans them from carrying their AK-47s and Glocks to polling places in a few weeks. This is a serious issue. People are irrational on this topic, so I don’t know how you train anyone – short of a licensed clinician – how to de-escalate political paranoia. And how are people not suppose to take it seriously when someone deliberately spits on you after telling you they are COVID-19 positive? Avoiding power struggles is great advice (for store owners trying to avoid lawsuits) but it’s a little tough when somebody is physically assaulting you. We have to quit treating this like it is an issue of a single individual who is acting out in order to be recognized. This is a movement characterized by the worst case “us and them” scenarios. Shep Hyken suggests retailers take a cue from Delta — good advice, but only if you remember that most flyers have few alternatives and airlines have… Read more »
Doug Garnett

No front-line associate should have to be alone when dealing with this. All associates need a panic button to call managers in the event of this type of conflict. While the risk of a truly crazy anti-masker is low, we have already seen that it takes just one confrontation to be fatal.

Ralph Jacobson

Keep it simple. Don’t escalate. Ask the customer to comply. If they don’t, call security or the police. Time will hopefully heal all wounds. Hopefully.

James Tenser

Prominent and permanent-looking posting of the mask and social distancing rules above the entrance is a place to start. No hand-lettered signs or sidewalk easels, which don’t look serious or official.
How about: “No Mask, No Shopping. For all our protection, [company] health and safety policy requires all persons on these premises to wear a face covering and maintain social distancing for the entire duration of their visit. Non-compliant visitors will not be served and will be asked to leave.”

Staff could be trained to politely remind guests about the policy once (sometimes people honestly forget) and offer a disposable mask if needed. No associate should ever be asked to take a personal risk by enforcing this rule, however. Just call security.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

This is a serious and sad situation and another example of why store associates need to be appropriately compensated for their essential role in our communities.

Craig Sundstrom

I was leaning toward “avoid power struggle” as were most people, apparently, but on reading, it came across as “do nothing.” I don’t really think that’s the solution.

I would offer one small (or maybe not so small) correction: “Retail employees have had to deal with minor and major confrontations on selling floors since retailing began.” So is the latest round of issues really any different?

Ricardo Belmar

Unfortunately, there are no good answers to this dilemma. Frontline store associates simply shouldn’t be asked to deal with extremely unruly customers that refuse to wear a mask. While most of these do not turn violent, the risk is there, and no associate should be forced to deal with that. Unfortunately, many small stores cannot afford to have security and have no alternative other than a frontline associate and a store manager to deal with such problems.

Retail workers should do their best to ask customers to follow these policies, but when the situation escalates beyond their ability, despite any training they may receive, it’s time to call for help. If security is not an option, then a call to the proper authorities is in order.

It’s insane that something as simple as wearing a mask to protect the public has become such a polarized issue, but that is where we are.

John Karolefski

We have all seen news reports of arguments and slight violence already. I have personally seen shoppers without masks and others walking the wrong way down aisles in grocery stores. If the winter season brings a second wave of COVID-19, coupled with the annual flu, the stage would be set for more Corona conflicts in grocery stories. Grocers would be wise to train personnel on how to de-escalate and prevent conflicts. But they would be really smart to have a big security guard in each store to provide a more intimidating type of conflict resolution.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

As a teenager working in a retail store, I saw a fight between two women for a tree on the day after Christmas sale. So disruption and violence in a store is not new. What is new is the frequency (not just big sales), topics (masks), and type of violence (presence of guns). All employees need some training in de-escalation. Security needs a lot of training in de-escalation, use of restraint with minimal force, and to have the skills to know when police action or medical intervention is necessary.