In-Store Safety Measures Are as Much Marketing as They Are Public Health

Retailers have altered the shopping experience to lure consumers back

Customer getting temperature checked outside of Gucci store
A consumer has his temperature taken outside of a Gucci store.
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Key Insights:

Across the country—even in states where Covid-19 case counts are rising—retailers have, by and large, reopened their doors. However, what stores look like once consumers walk through those doors has been, like most things, altered by the pandemic.

Masks are compulsory. Dressing rooms are likely closed. Surfaces are wiped down between shoppers. Bottles of hand sanitizer are everywhere. On the floors, arrows point down aisles, directing a flow of traffic. Outside, there are lines, where one person files into a store after another leaves, or an employee waves a temperature scanner in front of a customer’s forehead. And some stores are open for appointments only.

Amid the reopening process, businesses are doing whatever they can to prove to wary customers that, yes, it’s safe to return and shop again. That’s meant employing all sorts of changes, not just to ensure safety, but also to lure consumers back in.

“Retailers have to solve problems; they have to make it a low risk to go shopping,” said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis. “They need to overcome the psychological resistance to going shopping.”

There’s evidence that resistance is real: Stores aren’t seeing the foot traffic they were pre-Covid-19. By June, some states had already seen retail foot traffic return to half of its normal levels, but rises in case counts in July had them dipping back down. 

Many of the policies designed not only to keep consumers safe, but also to convince them of their safety, were laid out back in May, or even April, as retailers began to prepare for the reopening process in states that did so earliest. And in the months since, the world has learned a lot more about the novel coronavirus—perhaps most importantly, how it spreads. Nearly six months into the pandemic stateside, there’s still a lot people don’t know, but encouragingly, we know more than we did at the start—and more than we did when reopening began.

That’s meant that some of the safeguards put in place to protect consumers from the spread of Covid-19 may not be necessary. “Hygiene theater,” a term coined in an article published in The Atlantic, has bubbled up to describe the phenomenon of regulations that are expensive, irritating, and not only ineffective at preventing the spread of disease, but also harmful to the consumer experience in the process. 

“Brands are now trying to associate themselves very directly with cleaning processes and products to overcome the psychological fear,” said Goldberg. “Sometimes they’re doing things that are really well-founded in science; in other cases, they’re doing things that probably the science is dubious on. But they’re still marketing the heck out of them because they they want to alleviate the fear.”

But despite the cost—both mental and financial—retailers may not have much of a choice. Tactics such as closing dressing rooms might not do much to stop the spread of Covid-19, but it’s a bold enough move that it’ll convince consumers they’ll be safe entering their store again. And for retailers crawling back to life, that concern matters more than efficacy.

As Daniel Hodges, CEO and founder of the World Retail Forum, put it: “Without safe shopping, there is no shopping.” 

Plexiglass is up at many stores, creating a barrier between customer and employee.

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.