Retail COVID-19

How Retailers Can Operate During COVID-19 & Maintain Good CX

How should retail businesses act to protect their staff, customers and operations in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19)? Business as usual is not an option; every individual and business needs to play their part. Retailers can face this challenge while still maintaining good customer experience. Brick and mortar retailers are at the coalface because they employ vast numbers of people and interact directly with the general public. In this blog post we set out what a comprehensive plan that addresses health risks, supply chain disruptions and potential broader economic fallout should look like. We also hear from retail thought leaders like Bob Phibbs (the Retail Doctor), Shep Hyken and Nate Brown (Officium Labs) on how best to react to customers who are coughing and sneezing in your store without irreparably damaging the customer experience.  

Start with Best Health Practices

The first priority, of course, is to take all necessary precautions to protect people from the virus. There are obvious steps you can take to help ensure people remain healthy on the shop floor and adhere to in-store social distancing measures:
  • Make hand sanitiser dispensers available for staff and customer use.
  • Use stickers on the floor to help customers maintain required social distancing of six feet.
  • Install Perspex screens at cash registers.
  • Consider limiting the number of customers allowed in your store – social distancing is impossible in a crowded shop.
  • Ensure that employees are following proper hand washing procedure (at least 20 seconds using soap)
  • Remind everyone of coughing and sneezing etiquette.
  • Make sure the shop is cleaned thoroughly and routinely (being seen to do this might actually be a good customer experience in these times whereas normally it’s something retailers do when the store is closed). This is particularly important for self-serve checkout terminals and similar interactive screen.
  • Post reminders about prevention measures in staff rooms and in key store areas (e.g. deli counters).
  • Replace handshakes with friendly waves and hellos.
  • Issue at risk employees (e.g. cashiers) with disposable gloves (and potentially masks) to minimise their chances of being infected.
  • Make sure employees stay home if they are showing any symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath, aches and pains).

Tailor Company Policy

In terms of day-to-day management, be sure your store policies are conducive to fighting the outbreak and dealing with sick employees. The UK government has stated that up to 20% of the workforce may be off sick during the peak of a coronavirus epidemic, so it is essential to prepare for this possibility. This is a great opportunity for retail leaders to show how much they care about the employee experience as well as the customer experience. Make sure you consider the following issues:
  • Sick day policy may need to be revised. Businesses should make sure sick employees stay home, and ensure that they are not financially penalised for doing so.
  • Make a plan for dealing with sick staff. Identify a place where an employee can be separated if they show symptoms, and make a plan for transporting them to a medical care centre.
  • Evaluate employee schedules. If your store can find a way to operate with flexible schedules, minimise overlap and decrease the time employees are in contact, do it. Anyone who can work from home should be encouraged to do so if there is an outbreak in your area.
  • Minimise in-person meetings. Skype, Google Hangouts or any video conferencing tool should be used whenever possible, and avoid unnecessary travel.

Communicate with Customers Regularly and Clearly

Even amongst the chaos, great CX should still be a top priority. In a time of upheaval customers will want to stay informed. Be honest in communicating any potential delays or shortages caused by supply chain disruptions, but make sure to convey the information in a way that doesn’t add to the climate of fear. Tell the customer what they need to know quickly and easily via social media, in-store signage, etc. In a time of great stress and uncertainty, make sure you have the customer service tools to answer questions and show consumers you value them. Retailers who handle customer engagement well throughout this period of fear and worry may see long term benefits. COVID-19 is not going to persist forever.  

Consider Alternative Ways to Distribute Goods

More than one quarter of UK shoppers say they are avoiding the High Street due to Coronavirus fears. If you’re not already doing so, can you deliver your products? You may want to consider shifting more of your attention towards online sales. Alternatively, consider third party services that will deliver your goods straight to customers’ homes. One example is BuyMie, who delivers groceries from local shops around the UK and Ireland within an hour of the order. Delivery services are experiencing a surge in sales, so getting involved with one may be just what your business needs to make up for losses.  

What to do when customers in your stores show flu-like (and potentially Coronavirus) symptoms?

Finally, to answer the most difficult question of all, we decided to ask some thought leaders in retail customer experience what advice they would give, should a customer present in a store with signs of flu and potentially the Coronavirus.   “I think you get into dangerous territory when you expect employees to say anything to someone about their health. Remember, most of the time it’s just going to be the flu at this point or allergies. My advice would be not to say anything but provide gloves, face masks and hand sanitisers for store associates who want them because they feel their own health could be impacted.”

Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor (Link)

If a customer sneezes or coughs in the checkout queue, there’s a pretty good chance that the other customers in the queue will say something. Regardless, have hand sanitizer available throughout the store and at checkout. Equip employees with boxes of tissue so that when a customer sneezes or coughs the employee can offer the tissue. That kind of gesture will also send the message: Use the tissue and cover your mouth. If after that the customer still doesn’t get it, then simply say, “For the courtesy of others in the store, please use the tissue to cover your mouth when you’re coughing or sneezing.”

Shep Hyken, Customer Service and Experience Speaker (Link)

“Politely ask them to leave. It’ll soon be an offence.”

Andrew Busby, Founder of Retail Reflections (Link)

“I don’t think it would be inappropriate to have a sign at the entrance to your store reminding customers of how important it is to self-isolate if they have symptoms or have been in direct contact with someone who has been infected. I would accompany that message with a reliable way customers can get in touch with your staff to order goods for delivery if that is a service you offer (think about introducing it temporarily using a third party if you don’t).”

Oisin Ryan, CEO at ServiceDock (Link)

“Despite the corona virus, our goal remains to treat people with the utmost respect and dignity. Consider how many people you would see coughing and sneezing prior to corona virus existing. It’s a common occurrence, and while we can take certain precautions, we can’t go escorting everyone who sneezes out of our store. What we can do is make cleanliness a top priority, demonstrating to all guests that we value their wellness. Wearing latex gloves, wiping down all surfaces regularly, and making hand sanitiser available are good actions to take. Let your brand be remembered as one who took this crisis seriously…but responded with grace and compassion.”

Nate Brown,  Chief Customer Officer at Officium Labs (Link)


Conclusion: Be Adaptable and Inspire Confidence

The key to getting through a crisis is to keep up with new developments and adapt efficiently. Pinpoint potential problems and plan ahead. Most importantly, show your employees and customers that you have their interests at heart. Make sure they are protected, and prevent panic by showing them that you have a well-thought-out response to COVID-19.
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How Retailers Can Operate During COVID-19 & Maintain Good CX

by Oisin Ryan time to read: 5 min