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

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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.

Because Covid-19 is a respiratory illness, it is primarily transmitted through droplets in the air, produced by coughs, sneezing, even on occasion, talking. Lisa Lee, a research professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences and associate vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech University, said that the nature of the virus’ transmission means that allowing for physical distance in stores is paramount.

“Limiting the number of occupants in a store so people have room to stay far apart from each other, redirecting traffic so people aren’t bunched up in a single place like at a cash register,” said Lee.

Lee said those realities mean that measures such as limiting store capacity, wearing masks and encouraging customers to keep their distance from one another are effective. But concerns around surface transmission have lessened since the early days of the pandemic. According to Lee, though surface transmission—someone becoming infected with the virus from touching a surface covered in it—is not impossible, it’s unlikely. For it to happen, someone would have to touch a surface very soon after an infected person did, and then touch their face, Lee said.

That means that the reasoning for some retail regulations, such as letting clothes sit for a number of days before returns to the store floor or closing dressing rooms or restrooms is perhaps a bit less clear—particularly if occupancy is limited to one person per room. There is some legitimate reasoning, she argued, if such a space allowed crowds to gather, but that likely could be solved by limiting occupancy in the first place.

Goldberg also pointed to one-way aisles as a potentially ineffective method: After all, if less time spent in a store limits Covid-19 risk, then why employ a tactic that would likely increase the amount of time a person has to spend in a store, swerving through aisles they didn’t need to walk through to make it to their destination?

To boot, overall, when it comes to activity risk level, Lee said, visiting a store ranks fairly low.

“You can be in a retail store for less than 15 minutes,” she said. “You won’t have a lot of prolonged contact. We generally don’t spend four hours in the same place there, like we would at a sports event or a concert.”

For retailers hoping to make a recovery after some of their toughest months on record, it’s a balance of convincing consumers they’ll be safe in their stores without sacrificing the experience they have within them. There’s no denying that some of these measures, like the one-way aisles or closing fitting rooms, hurt the consumer experience. No one wants to make an extra trip around the store if they don’t need to. And after all, why buy a garment in store if you can’t try it on?

But as Goldberg said, the fact is, retailers have some motivation to keep the number of visitors to their stores at lower levels, due to capacity limits and government-mandated regulation. The criteria, he said, is “different” than it was pre-pandemic.

The customers that retailers want in stores are the ones most likely to make a purchase, regardless of access to fitting rooms or having to wait in line before entering. For the consumers who may be more on the fence, it’s better to encourage them to embrace the ecommerce experience—which is easier to do with enhancements such as virtual try-ons or free returns.

“If I can invent an alternative way for those less-engaged shoppers to engage with my product and enjoy it without going to the store, and potentially get them to order at home, do curbside pickup or leverage my virtual try-on system, that’s a win,” he added. “I need to save the slots in the store for my biggest, best shoppers.”

Winning consumer trust now could also have greater implications for the future. If a retailer is able to win someone over during the most vulnerable of moments, that customer will likely keep coming back when the pandemic fades. 

“Consumers are most vulnerable at this point in terms of their confidence in safe shopping,” said Hodges. “Those [retailers] who go through the measures, enforcing it, training it, creating a thorough, safe experience, they’ll win the loyalty and trust.”

He added: “It’s a great opportunity for building lasting relationships with customers.”

@dianapearl_ Diana is the brand marketing editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.