As the United States marked a subdued Independence Day last weekend, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to surge in many places, prompting governors of several states to implement or reinstate strict protocols meant to combat it.
Most of the latest restrictions are on bars and restaurants, which are proving to be potential hotspots for the virus to spread. But in certain areas, political leaders made it mandatory to wear a mask while shopping, even, as in Maine, forcing retailers to enforce that, along with social distancing. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo decreed that indoor malls must also have specialized filters in their ventilation and air conditioning systems in order to reopen.
These measures stop short of closing down nonessential retail, a tactic that for about a month and a half, starting in mid-March, helped to decimate retail sales in most categories, especially in apparel. A major rebound in May as stores have reopened is nevertheless well short of a full recovery.
The reopening has also been rocky, as customers in some areas pointedly refuse to wear a mask or keep their distance from others, leaving store associates in the position of enforcers.
But while there have been high-profile instances of recalcitrant shoppers, most Americans remain wary of shopping in the COVID-19 era. Nearly three-quarters said they wouldn't feel very comfortable shopping in a physical store in the next three months, according to a survey from workplace safety platform SafetyCulture and YouGov emailed to Retail Dive. The same survey found that comfort increases when businesses take precautions like regular cleaning and are transparent about their procedures.
"The nationwide survey results clearly show many consumers are not yet comfortable resuming even the most basic of public activities, yet there is a way forward," Bob Butler, SafetyCulture general manager of the Americas, said in a statement. "There is a clear opportunity here for businesses to take specific actions that will increase employee and consumer confidence."
Indeed, safety has become a selling point, according to J. Craig Shearman, vice president of government affairs and public relations at the National Retail Federation.
"Whether to reopen a store is up to each individual retailer, and the status of restrictions that have been put in place — or lifted — in each state or locality," he told Retail Dive in an email. "Most retailers who are reopening have taken extensive steps to ensure the health and safety of their workers and customers, including cleaning, masks, Plexiglas shields, testing or asking employees whether they have exposure to COVID-19, and other steps."
The new necessities
Stores can reopen safely even as the pandemic continues, but that doesn't mean a return to normal, experts say.
Above all, that means requiring employees and customers to wear masks, imposing distancing requirements (which could entail restricting how many shoppers are in a store at any one time), and sanitizing surfaces.
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million workers in grocery stores and other essential businesses, over the Fourth of July weekend urged consumers "to wear masks and respect social distancing," noting the "growing and alarming spike of COVID-19 cases in California, Texas, Florida, and numerous other states."
Despite some resistance to wearing them, masks are emerging as especially helpful in stemming the contagion. Recent research published by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, found that the protection afforded by masks "significantly reduces the number of infections," noting that other "mitigation measures, such as social distancing implemented in the United States, are insufficient by themselves in protecting the public."
All three of those basic measures add up to a necessary protocol to run a store, according to immunologist Robert Quigley, M.D., senior vice president and regional medical director of medical and travel security services firm International SOS.
"It's not another type of flu — we know about the flu, we understand it, but I'm still learning stuff about this virus and will probably continue to learn because there's still a lot we don't know," he told Retail Dive in an interview. "The practices are effective in an aggregate fashion. If you add social distancing to the mask wearing and the hand sanitizers and touchless payment, and remember restrooms — up your game with wiping things down. Rules are rules, and rules are enforced with the idea that there's not a choice. The moment you breach that you run the risk of contaminating the environment and your employees and customers. But if we do enforce that and comply, we're good to go."
If these protocols are followed strictly, retailers can safely run their stores, including even their dressing rooms, according to Julie Swann, a pandemic response expert, and professor and department head at North Carolina State. But they should assess their own environments rather than treating local ordinances as a license to adhere to minimum precautions.
Most consumers want to see that retailers are doing so, according to the SafetyCulture research from YouGov, which found that more than half of Americans say that publicly displayed lists of daily safety procedures "would increase trust and confidence in that business."
However, asking store employees to be enforcers is unfair and potentially risky for them, according to executives from the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the NRF.
"Most retailers are taking their lead from public health agencies and encouraging their customers to wear masks if not outright requiring it, and some are working under state or local orders requiring masks," NRF's Shearman noted. "But given the incidents of violence we have seen when some customers object to wearing masks, retailers do not want to let disagreements escalate to the point of confrontations. Many retailers have said they do not want to become the face mask police, and that if states and local government want mask requirements strictly enforced they should provide law enforcement officers to do so."
Retailers themselves may want to find employees to handle enforcement, but the task ideally stops at the door, according to Forrester Research Principal Analyst Brendan Witcher. "Your store associates were hired to sell widgets, so maybe get professional security at the front door. There's a lot of out-of-work bouncers right now from all the bars and restaurants," he told Retail Dive in an interview. "If the customer's in the store without a mask, you're already past the point — I wouldn't rely on a clerk to deal with that."
In addition to whoever enforces the new rules in person, well-placed, repetitive signs are effective reinforcement, Quigley said. And while the rules are novel, like the virus itself, they hark back to the well known "common courtesy" standard of "no shirt, no shoes, no service," according to Tom Ertler, senior vice president and creative director at Miller Zell, and a designer and creative director focused on graphic communication and environment design for retailers.
Especially when grocery shopping, consumers have ingrained habits when moving around a store that need to change right now, he said. "The scale and proportion and positioning of signage — even though, I'm hoping, it's temporary — should be just like permanent signage so it doesn't feel haphazard or slapped on," Ertler said in an interview. "Give that message in a tone of voice so it feels like the brand speaking. 'Glad you're here, remember social distancing,' in key areas and at natural touchpoints. The floor is now a much more powerful way to communicate some of these messages, 'This is what six feet looks like,' the directionality."
Emphasize the community vibe more than the medical evidence, which some people feel entitled to dispute, says Forrester's Witcher. "It's not about science or 'the virus.' You could be poking the bear with that kind of message because you have people who want to believe the opposite," he said. "Work on people's good nature. It's about trying to make everyone feel comfortable."
But do trumpet what is being done to make people feel comfortable he also said, noting that a great majority of people now feel safe shopping their local grocery store. "When you look at why that might be, think of what's been in the news — all the steps that grocers have been taking to keep people safe. There's no reason they should feel safer in a grocery store, but they do because the PR has been amazing. Don't be shy about what you're doing to keep employees and customers safe in your stores. Too many companies are not talking about what they're doing."
Dressing rooms, cleaned thoroughly after every use and opened in staggered fashion, can be safely used in a store where customers are spaced well apart and wearing masks, according to Swann. While it may feel counterintuitive to limit how many people shop at once, luxury players in some areas already do so, in order to foster the kind of exclusivity found at a nightclub, notes Quigley. "The concept of limiting people entering a facility isn't novel," he said. "The reason is novel."
To that end, brick-and-mortar analytics firm RetailNext has worked with a consortium of retailers and property owners in forming a nonprofit, ShopSafe, with tech that enables stores to let customers know the crowd level at a store, an indication not just of safety, but also of how long they might wait in line.
"Retailers, especially in the U.S., are not very transparent about their data — it's a very competitive market and they don't want people to know what their traffic is," RetailNext CEO and co-founder Alexei Agratchev told Retail Dive in an interview. "They worry about it being used against them. But all of a sudden you have this time where having crowds is not a good thing. It's the right thing to do and what most retailers are doing, to be as cautious and safe as possible, and the more communication and transparency, the better."
By taking the right precautions, then, it may be possible to safely run a store in a pandemic. But, despite the critical importance of brick and mortar, reopening stores may not be retailers' most pressing concern at the moment.
"Let's all remember that opening a store doesn't create economic lift, it's opening shopping that creates the economic lift," Witcher said. "So how you run your store right now is not about how is the pandemic going, but how is the economy going."
And right now, it is not going so well. Economists including those at the National Bureau of Economic Research have said the U.S. economy entered a recession in February. Even with unemployment easing as businesses reopened, Wells Fargo economists in a July 2 note called the number of first-time unemployment filers "inordinately high," and warned that "with the number of COVID-19 cases accelerating and some states delaying re-opening or imposing new restrictions, we are concerned that a significant number of individuals may become furloughed again."
That tends to undermine consumer confidence. "Uncertainty about future job and income prospects grew substantially across all income and age subgroups, reaching a peak in April," and was highest among lower income and younger households, according to a June 19 note from Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan's Surveys of Consumers, which measure consumer sentiment. "These judgements should improve in the months ahead along with the reopening of the economy, but cannot be expected to regain the positive levels recorded at the start of 2020 anytime soon."
It's an environment where there may be more important things than rushing to open stores, Witcher said. "You have the opportunity to fix things that broke, like the supply chain," he said, identifying that as the number one investment for retailers right now.
But it's also a time when loyalty has been scrambled, which presents an unprecedented marketing opportunity, according to Witcher.
"We've been sitting at home for so long and we've never been through a period where we've been forced to forget, and not shop with people we've shopped with for years," he said. "What businesses had to do before was win a customer from somebody else. Now the marketing dollars will go far because you're not stealing. This is a great opportunity and you don't want to wait till Black Friday to do that, you want to do that for back to school, when, coincidentally, we'll have Amazon Prime Day. We don't have loyalties right now — I'm considering brands I've never considered before. It's a reset."