How To Ensure Health and Safety in Retail During the Social Distancing Era

By: on May 14, 2020

In a not-so-long-ago-but-increasingly-distant past, a business owner might welcome a new customer into their store or complete a sale with a hearty handshake.

But with concerns over COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 and beyond, that handshake has become a friendly wave from behind a plexiglass divider.

Sure, it’s cold and impersonal, but this is when businesses that adapt and evolve will survive and thrive.

One part of that evolution means altering your business to ensure the health and safety of your retail customers and employees. That might mean offering curbside pickup and more delivery options, enabling contactless transactions, or just putting tape on the floor in your checkout areas to encourage social distancing.

Whatever you do, you have to do something—business as usual won’t cut it. We talked to Jesus Mendoza Jr., co-owner and head baker of Austin-based vegan eatery and health chain Mr. Natural for his tips on safely reopening to customers, and here’s what he had to offer.

1. Offer cleaning products and masks on location

Mendoza found a simple solution for customers who show up to the store without a mask: Sell them for a reasonable price at your store.

“It’s for the wellbeing of your customers and your staff,” he said. “Some people come in and say ‘I don’t have a mask.’ Well, now they have to buy one if they’re going to step inside.”

Along those same lines, when Mendoza’s supplier got hand sanitizer back in stock, he bought a case to sell to his customers. “We’re going to put it on the counter and sell it for pennies (over cost),” he says. “That’s something that everybody should have and…we want to be able to provide it.”

Mendoza also advises reallocating your budget as necessary. For example, he was able to shift budget away from dish detergent to buy more surface cleaner.

How your business can do this: Don’t worry about getting medical grade masks. Simple cloth masks are fine. You can even offer branded masks featuring your logo to promote healthy practices.

2. Be vocal and creative to ensure safe distancing

Mendoza says that he has put up lots of signage and marked off safe spacing with tape, but social distancing is still an adjustment for some of his customers.

“You have to be vocal with your customers,” he says. “They’ll come up to the counter when there’s a person already there being charged and I will have to let them know: ‘Please, wait your turn. You can step back six feet.’”

This also meant putting up signs asking customers not to touch products they don’t plan to buy, and asking them not to lean against surfaces in the store.

Another approach is to think of your available space creatively, and make changes that make sense. For example, when his dining area was forced to close, he blocked it off with shelving and used that shelving to display more bakery products.

“We created this little area where people can walk in and view the baked goods,” he said. A lost part of the store became a showcase of more products than most customers knew about.

How your business can do this: Put up social distancing signage throughout your store and practice it yourself. Be friendly but firm about making sure customers and employees take it seriously. Enforcing one-way traffic flow in aisles can also help.

3. Pay special attention to point of sale, and drive customers to phone or online payments

Mendoza has been sanitizing his point of sale system before and after every time it is used, but that creates its own problem.

“Electronics [are] not meant to be washed every single time,” he says. “Put some kind of plastic coating over it because you’re going to be washing that constantly.”

An even better solution, he says, is to avoid the physical transaction altogether, when possible, by promoting online and phone payments.

“That is so much better,” he says. “And thankfully we have a register that will automatically print any order that comes in, it goes straight to the kitchen and we know that it’s prepaid. […] Find out what capabilities (your POS system) has so that you can make it easier for your customer to order so you don’t have to keep charging them on site all the time.”

How your business can do this: Cover your credit card machines in plastic wrap, and promote online and phone payments on your social media and website. Accept cash payments only when no other alternative is available.

4. Get creative with delivery packages

Another way for retailers to promote health and safety from COVID-19 for customers and employees is to bring the retail experience to the customer through unique delivery packages.

For example, Mendoza created pastry boxes to bring the best of Mr. Natural’s pastry selections to customers in an attractive package.

vegan pastry box delivery facebook ad for mr natural

Facebook post advertising Mr. Natural’s vegan pastry box. (Source)

“A package that will intrigue people, delivered, reaches more people than something that you can pick up,” Mendoza said. “It has to be something unique for those businesses”

For a salon, this could be hair and skin care products. For a coffee shop, this could be a selection of coffee beans and baked goods. For a toy store, it could be a collection of board games.

“The key is that you want it to look eye-appealing to the customer so that it gets social media coverage. So that your restaurant or your business gets noticed from different angles.”

How your business can do this: Think about what makes your business unique, and how you can deliver that to your customers in an eye-catching package.

5. Use downtime to learn new skills, like social media

Almost everyone has experienced additional downtime due to COVID-19, especially in retail. But rather than just waiting for things to return to normal, Mendoza suggests using that extra time to learn a new skill.

Whether it’s mastering your online ordering system or boosting your social media presence, your new skill will help ensure safe and effective operations when business picks back up.

“Find out what’s the easiest way for you to process orders, to organize orders,” Mendoza said. “Do some trial runs. Know your systems so you can utilize what you’ve got.”

Cindy Pullin, who owns Sentry RV & Boat Storage in Austin, agrees.

“Use this time to educate [yourself on] new ways to market to customers,” says Pullin, who has also been brushing up on unmanned procedures and automatic payments. “I am taking a new class everyday on marketing, SEO, Google, etc. to keep changing our tactics for gaining new customers.”

How your business can do this: Keep a list of pain points that you have running your business, and match them to skills that would address those issues. As you have time, learn and practice those skills while operating your business.

More tips for health and safety in retail

In addition to the tips above, Gartner suggests the following for safely operating in the workplace during COVID-19 (full report available to Gartner clients):

  • Adjust your hours to prevent overcrowding
  • Stagger shifts to prevent workers from having to work side-by-side if possible
  • Replace handshakes with waves and nods
  • Mark off six-foot spacing not only in customer areas but also in employee-only spaces
  • Space out seating in reception areas
  • Pool tasks to enable one employee to do the same job across sites
  • Meet virtually with coworkers and customers, whenever possible

For more strategies on navigating COVID-19 and beyond, visit our Coronavirus Resource hub.

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