Retailers must put COVID safety above angry customers

These are rough times for U.S. retailers, and reopening could make things rougher. As staggering losses and bankruptcies continue to mount, many are hoping to regain financial ground as they begin opening to the public with social distancing measures in place.

But in their zeal to get customers back in their stores, leaders should be mindful that many employees are encountering–or fear they will inevitably encounter–aggressive resistance to safety measures from customers. How leaders listen to, and support front-line workers facing in-store showdowns may determine the success or failure of a reopening strategy, and ultimately, their business.

Frightening stories

Retailers who have yet to open should take note of the grocery industry’s run-ins with angry customers. There have been some successes and support – One Costco employee’s firm handling of maskless shoppers at a Colorado store reeled in praise from workers and customers alike.  But there also have been frightening stories, such as the report of attackers who broke a Target worker’s arm as he was attempting to escort them out of California store.

And these clashes are likely to become more commonplace as more stores reopen and stay open longer.  New York Magazine reported that a survey of more than 5,000 grocery-store workers, released in April, found that 96% of workers said they fear they’ll contract coronavirus on the job, 85% said that customers aren’t practicing social distancing in stores, and 29% said customers treated them poorly or very poorly on the job.  On May 15, The New York Times reported more incidents of violence against workers for attempting to enforce mask-wearing rules.

Besides the clear danger of physical harm to employees, stores may face backlash over safety policies from both overburdened workers and defiant customers at a time when retailers can least afford it.

Safety fears take a toll on culture

When leaders choose put safety on the back shelf, culture clearly takes a hit. CultureIQ’s research has found troubling disconnects around safety among U.S. employees who are likely to be on-site workers. In a May 12 article on our updated 2020 Global Workforce Culture Survey,  Principal Strategists Paul Mastrangelo and Diane Daum reported that the survey found:

“Though 67 percent of respondents felt safety was a priority with immediate supervisors, this marks a 4-[percentage] point drop from 2018/2019 for the sample as a whole. Among respondents with less formal education — who were also more likely to say they continued to be exposed to coworkers and customers during this time frame — we observed a 7-point drop. Likewise, these same workers showed a 6 percent decline in feeling that senior leadership demonstrates its commitment to compliance.”

There is definitely work to be done by retailers to bring a culture of safety back to their stores as they open their doors.

Here are 5 ways to help employees make stores safer:

1. Ensure your on-site safety measures are clearly communicated to and understood by all employees, and by customers before they walk in the door. That means spelling them out on websites, in social media, in prominent signage on site, and by greeters/security at the door if you can. Be kind in pointing out you are doing this to protect everybody – especially those who may have weakened immune systems. And be firm that customers are entering a private establishment. Your organization make the rules, and has every right to enforce them.

2. Have a security plan in place for handling customers who won’t abide by the rules. If you can’t afford outside security, determine a chain of command for conflicts–preferably having most employees defer to a supervisor who has been thoroughly trained in safety measures and conflict resolution. Give clear guidance to all employees on avoiding escalations andinteracting with customers from a distance so they do not endanger themselves.

3. Let employees know you fully support them when they enforce COVID safety rules over customers’ objections. Listen to and work with local managers to create plans to communicate that this safety support takes precedence over a dissatisfied customer.

4. Expect that videos may be taken, and circulated, when arguments arise. Think twice about letting your first reaction be penalizing employees or contractors for capturing footage. (A lesson FedEx seems to be taking to heart in the aftermath of a driver-customer confrontation in Georgia).

5. Express your appreciation to your front-line employees openly, enthusiastically and financially, if possible. Some of your team may be literally putting their lives on the line to ensure the safety of store workers and customers. They’re being heroes for your people and your business–so treat them that way.

There may be a few customers who won’t agree with these policies, but ultimately, the success of your business and loyalty of most customers depends on supporting your employees.

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