Through the retail lens: Face coverings

The positive impact mask mandates have on retailers staying open
Sandy Smith
NRF Contributor

The case for wearing face coverings as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19 grows stronger. Many local governments and retail companies are instituting mask requirements in stores. But some retailers have experienced resistance to these policies, sometimes leading to aggressive confrontations.

Mara Devitt, senior partner at retail consultancy McMillanDoolittle, has more than 30 years of experience consulting for retailers. She specializes in helping companies enhance customer engagement and works with leading retailers like Samsung, Nike, LensCrafters, Asics, Publix and Gap. Devitt is also a member of the National Retail Federation’s Associate Member Council. She spoke with NRF about the challenges and opportunities for retailers in enforcing mask mandates.

Mara Devitt on retail and face coverings
Mara Devitt, Senior Partner at McMillanDoolittle

As you advise clients around the globe, what are you telling them about mask mandates?

Both government and regulatory agencies have been providing conflicting direction since the beginning of the pandemic. This has unfortunately confused the public, and that made it tougher for retailers to respond. Our advice has been to be consistent. Masks are something we can actively do to protect employees. Early in the pandemic you saw many retailers supplying masks to protect employees and, most recently, mandating that customers wear masks.

Beyond the health aspects, there is a good business reason for masks. At McMillanDoolittle, we completed a consumer survey on retail brand trust at the end of May into early June. There are some great learnings from the survey that indicate it’s good business sense to take action to protect your team, your customers and your business partners.

Our survey showed 74 percent of customers agree it is incumbent upon retailers to provide a safe environment for employees. We also found a clear link between trust, employee care and customer care. Companies perceived as taking better care of their employees correlated with higher trust with consumers, with those shoppers feeling they were taken better care of by those retailers. The retailers that were highest on trust, like Costco, were really early movers for the mask mandates, which we found interesting. Masks make sense, as they are generally perceived positively by both employees and customers.

NRF On Masks

Check out the press release here.

It seems as if we’ve had a spate of retailers instituting mask policies in the last few weeks. Why the watershed now?

The pandemic hasn’t subsided as we all hoped. It’s still here and has picked up in many areas. We’ve seen local governments, agencies and industry groups like NRF calling for a national standard on masks. Many retailers have taken this as an indication that it is time to take clear and consistent action in their organizations.

What risks does this create, since masks have become something of a political football?

What we’ve been telling our clients is that they need to stay true to their core values. It’s important for retailers to make it clear to customers how they do business with their customers and why. It reminds me when nonsmoking regulations were rolled out. It was initially difficult to deal with the change but in a short time it became the normal course of business.

What about the security issues? We’ve seen fights break out, or employees be berated. How can a retailer protect everyone in these situations?

Retail is detail and preparation is key. First of all, retailers need to define policies that are clear, and those policies must be consistently communicated both internally and externally. The implications of these policies on how we sell to and serve our customers must be similarly considered with training and support provided to our teams as they implement the policies.

We help our customers by clearly setting their expectations even before they arrive at our store. Consider all pre-shopping touchpoints: on the website, the mobile app, signs in the parking lot and at the entrance.

We need to think through the details of the experience and how we can be prepared to make it positive: What if the customer forgot their mask? How do we respond? What if the customer has a health issue? How do we accommodate them cost-effectively and with an appropriate service level? Retailers need to think through the appropriate response for each of those instances and communicate it: “Forgot your mask? Go do X.” Retailers could simply provide them with a mask, which is a branding and engagement opportunity.

Finally, retailers must double down on training. This situation reminds us how challenging that retail front-line service job really is. Part of retail reality is that we commonly have to deal with customers who might be having a bad day and taking it out on our store team. In today’s stressful environment, these bad days are becoming more frequent. Our customer service standards and training about how we deal with unhappy customers really need to be confirmed now. Retailers need to do a refresher so it is perfectly clear how and when a situation is escalated, when to involve a manager, when to get outside assistance from local law enforcement, etc.

We’ve seen some retailers step into a new business model, too, either creating masks or selling personalized ones. While we might eventually move away from masks, what should retailers learn about meeting this moment?

This is an important moment in time for retailers to enhance the connection with their consumers and employees by taking thoughtful actions. This contributes to building long-term trust, and that translates into long-term customer value. That’s what we’re all looking for in this competitive time, where consumers are shopping less frequently and spending more per trip. We want to ensure they’re thinking of us first, they feel safe and cared for when they come, and they look at us as a company that takes great care of our employees and customers. We’re not saying it’s easy. That’s the challenge and the takeaway.  

I really like what Everlane is doing with its masks, which was interesting in that it addressed several issues in one product offering. Its 100% Human brand masks offer a portion of proceeds to the American Civil Liberties Union. There are companies that are taking this as an opportunity to clarify their brand messaging and positioning.

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