Last week, we described the nearly untenable position retailers find themselves in as they necessarily mandate in-store mask use for locations across the country but do so without a national order in place, leaving them to enforce policies even in states that do not require masks at this time. As we asked last week, how, particularly as the mask divide gets increasingly contentious, are retailers to enforce their policies?
Since then, well, nobody has found a solution. Walmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walgreens, and CVS, for example, all require customers to wear masks in their stores, but stop short of refusing entry, wishing to avoid a conflict between employees and customers.
This week, we are continuing to put in the retail market research as we run through the latest in mask policies before offering a glimpse of what health and safety market research methodologies can do for companies in these chaotic times.
Let’s Start a Trend: Tip Your Frontline Retail Worker!
And these pandemic times are chaotic indeed, particularly for frontline retail employees. Scott Shalley is the president of Florida’s Retail Association, representing retailers in one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic, and one in which the governor has been slow to follow health and safety best practices. Shalley worries that employees are unfairly bearing the brunt of corporate policies, facing hostility and at times violence from angry customers.
This is troubling because, as Shalley points out, “It’s not that frontline retail employee who is in a position of having to request that you put the mask on. They didn’t create the local ordinance. They didn’t create the statewide mandate. They didn’t even create the corporate policies, so let’s take a deep breath if we will.”
Apart from his curious rhetoric--suggesting we all take a deep breath during a respiratory pandemic--his point is well taken. Retail workers have become the whipping boys, standing in as an easy target for people’s frustrations about the virus and hostilities on the cultural warfront.
We’ve already recounted some of the horrifying incidents in retail locations across the country, and sadly, they have continued. Read this truly sad first-hand story from a frontline retail worker if you can stomach it and you will understand a bit of what people are up against here, or just trust that, in a country where people are pulling guns out at Walmart and ramming people with shopping carts at Ralphs, well, things are getting ugly.
JOEANN, Dollar Tree, and The Lingering Question of Enforcement
JOEANN Fabrics, which caters to crafty people of every political persuasion, became the latest retailer to institute a chain-wide mask policy. CEO Wade Miquelon explained the decision: "This is the right thing to do.”
When asked about populist resistance to the policy, Miquelon continued, ”For the very few minority [of people] that don't want to comply, I think those are probably customers that we're willing to lose just because of the situation that we're in."
It’s that last part we're most interested in, the part about the customers they are willing to lose. It reminds us of a similar statement from Jeff Bezos in response to a customer complaint regarding Amazon’s public support for recent protests, telling the angry customer that he was the type of customer Amazon “loved to lose.” No, Miquelon does not go that far, but when the CEO of a national retailer starts to feel safe alienating a small subset of the population and feels comfortable discussing it well, it’s like it tells you what direction things are moving. These are not off the cuff remarks, of course, but well-considered, data-driven decisions emerging from market research.
Yet, despite Miquelon’s suggestion that the non-compliant can kiss off, JOEANN, like almost every other retailer, will not commit to training employees to refuse service to non-compliant customers: "We'll cross the bridge when we come to it...I just don't want to see an employee get hurt. Our people didn't sign up for that. They're just trying to be a good citizen and earn a living."
Dollar Tree, for one, has decided that they will not have to. The discount retailer reversed its in-store mask requirement, opting instead to encourage their use but not make it a mandatory condition for entry. While some may quickly assume that Dollar Tree, with its deep presence in deep red states, was bowing to anti-mask pressure, it is highly unlikely this is the case. Far likelier is that Dollar Tree realized the bare-bones staff it employs (oftentimes only one person working registers) to keep margins right, simply could not focus on their regular duties and the added responsibilities of ensuring health and safety compliance among customers.
When your regular crew looks like most retailers’ skeleton crews, assigning new health and safety work would simply stretch their staff too thin, a staffing situation that was already causing serious problems BEFORE the pandemic. A dollar can buy you a lot...but maybe not safety.
Nobody Said the Transition Would Be Easy
But let’s not get glum. Like we said last week, there is reason for hope as it seems that, however slowly, the majority of the nation is coming around. According to an AP survey, three out of four Americans support requiring people to wear masks when outside their homes. Things are moving in the right direction.
Masks in pandemic times are going to be like seatbelts, something that is just so obviously for the greater good that it will seem unfathomable that people ever resisted, and downright scandalous that they did so with such vitriol.
Yet, we are still in a transitional period. Witness this Minnesota couple who donned swastika masks to their local Walmart, essentially saying, “well, you told us to wear a mask!” Such provocateurs have always existed (though they have no doubt been emboldened over the last four years) and must be dealt with swiftly, which Walmart did in this case.
Health and Safety Market Research: Market Research Methodologies for Retailers During the Pandemic
With customers like these, who needs enemies, amiright?! What retailers need, of course, is health and safety market research. Now more than ever, retailers need rigorous market research programs,
particularly when developing, rolling out, and validating particularly fraught initiatives.
Here is just a small set of the tools available in the health and safety market research toolkit.
- Panel surveys: Construct panels reflecting your current and ideal customers to better understand their expectations and frustrations, while learning how to best communicate store policy to different groups with different perspectives and values. You won’t be able to please everybody, of course, but you never could, so use panel surveys to hone your messaging to ensure that if there is to be conflict on the sales floor, it is with a data-driven approach that minimizes fallout from customers, employees, and the kangaroo court of public opinion.
- Competitor analysis: This one’s easy--what are your competitors doing differently and how are customers responding. What lessons can you learn, what mistakes can you avoid, and what policies can you borrow? Honestly, retailers are all in this together--everybody’s loss is, well, everybody’s loss. So, learn what you can from your competitors about how they are keeping people safe while meeting customer expectations.
- Brand health: Keep track of what your customers are saying about your company on social media as you navigate these complex times, as well as their likelihood to recommend your company. With controversies and concerns around every corner, it is a good time to invest in market research methodology that rapidly reports customers’ and consumers’ reactions to your initiatives.
As we’ve pointed out when discussing Black Lives Matter, today’s consumers expect action from the companies they patronize--the days of comfortably sitting out issues of great social and civic import are behind us. And, as public relations guru Stefan Pollak observed, this pertains to mask mandates as well. “I believe brands need to pay attention to the new consumer activist. Brands no longer have the luxury of staying neutral."
If, in the name of public health and civic duty, a stance must be taken (which it must), it is best to assure this stance is firmly rooted in market research.
Now tip your frontline retail worker. Seriously!