Essential business guide to customer and employee safety during the coronavirus pandemic

Published September 11, 2020

Trying to predict what will happen in a pandemic is impossible. Will the coronavirus mutate into new strains? Will a vaccine be available and effective—sometime soon? What about a second wave...will that also mean a second wave of shelter-in-place orders?

The unknowns could stay unknown for a while yet. But there are still some recommendations brick-and-mortar retails can consider, based on what experts do know about keeping customers and employees safer.


Grocery footfall traffic: A peak, followed by a valley

Anecdotal evidence revealed that, at many U.S. grocery stores, consumers did a lot of panic buying—and then stayed home. Footfall traffic data confirm this phenomenon.

From March 17 – 19, 2020, soon after the European travel ban was announced, footfall traffic peaked by nearly 42 percent, on average, at most U.S. grocery stores. Immediately afterward, foot traffic fell sharply below a baseline established on February 26, 2020, as people sheltered in place in many areas.

Compared with the previous year, the period of February 26 – April 2, 2020 saw roughly a 19 percent drop in U.S. grocery store foot traffic. Some major big box retailers experienced even bigger declines than grocery retailers did during this period: over 30 percent.

According to travel and navigation app developer GasBuddy, convenience store foot traffic bottomed out around the same time. It decreased between March 26 and April 1, 2020, then rebounded from April 23 – 29, 2020, likely due to relaxed restrictions in many states.

Not surprisingly, c-stores with above-average cleanliness ratings from customers saw 17.23 percent more visits than competitors with below-average ratings. The takeaway: Cleanliness is not just a customer preference—for many, it’s now a health issue.

From peaks and valleys in foot traffic to new expectations for cleanliness, retailers are adapting to a new way of doing business. Here are a few of their strategies. 

C-stores with above-average cleanliness ratings saw 17% more visits.

How the industry is keeping employees and customers safe

Essential business operators responsible for providing a safe environment have plenty of resources to help inform their strategies for preventing the spread of the coronavirus in their stores, from distancing to contactless technologies.


Social distancing

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people should stay 6 feet or 2 meters apart. This includes public places like stores, where employees and shoppers alike should follow the guideline. But it can be a challenge when store occupancy is high. Still, there are a few approaches retailers can use to achieve proper distancing in-store:

  • Allowing flexible work hours, such as staggered shifts
  • Increasing physical space between employees
  • Offering fulfilment options, such as curbside pickup or delivery
  • Creating signage and floor markers for one-way aisles

One large grocery retailer has also been making in-store loudspeaker announcements about healthy habits and urging shoppers to keep their distance. Others are sending employee reminders to sanitize their workstations every few hours.

And when employees are exposed to the virus? Many businesses have established clear triggers, or criteria, to identify when employees can safely return to work. Common triggers include multiple negative tests for the coronavirus, a positive antibody test and a two-week period of self-quarantine during which the employee shows no symptoms.


Hygiene and disinfection

In its Publication 3996, COVID-19 Guidance for Retail Workers, the U.S. Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) provides guidance:

  • Allow workers to wear face coverings to prevent them from spreading the virus.
  • Provide a place to wash hands or alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Maintain regular housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and equipment with Environmental Protection Agency-approved cleaning chemicals from List N or that have label claims against the coronavirus.
  • Provide workers and customers with tissues and trash receptacles.
  • Train workers in proper hygiene practices and the use of workplace controls.


Store and foot traffic pattern modifications

OSHA recommends:

  • Demarcating six-foot distances with floor tape in checkout lines.
  • Where social distancing is a challenge, consider innovative approaches such as opening only every other cash register or temporarily moving workstations to create more distance.

Many U.S. grocers and convenience stores have installed plexiglass partitions at checkouts or workstations. Retailers can also borrow an idea from Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate-services company, which has designed the 6 Feet Office concept. It includes bold circles on the carpets around desks to show where people can stand, plus increased signage—all to encourage physical distancing.

In some cases, it also makes sense to close some parts of store altogether. Indeed, McKinsey & Company reported that some grocery stores temporarily closed high-contact areas, such as food courts and self-serve food stations.


Business hours adjustments

  • Nearly all grocery stores are adjusting their operating hours. And they’re doing this for a couple of reasons: Closing earlier in the evening allows more time for store employees to thoroughly clean the busiest touchpoints in the store. And, following daily shopping surges, it allows more time to stock shelves with the essentials consumers seek.
  • Also, many grocers reserve are still reserving the first hour of business for at-risk populations. That’s a great way for retailers to protect and empathize with their communities.


Gas station-specific strategies

Gas station forecourts, in particular, have unique features that mean taking unique approaches to ensuring employee and customer safety:

  • Offer full-service fill-ups, if possible. That will keep customers from having to touch shared surfaces in your forecourt.
  • Put disposable gloves at your pumps.
  • Make hand sanitizer available.
  • Frequently sanitize your POS terminals, kiosks, touchscreens, etc. with a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol solution for touchscreens, wiping with a damp (not wet) cloth. Use a soap, water and bleach solution for plastic and metal surfaces.


More resources for containing the coronavirus

CDC’s general business frequently asked questions page offers more guidance on how to keep employees safe, face coverings including cloth face coverings, cleaning and disinfecting workplaces, and more.

The National Retail Federation’s Operation Open Doors–Path to Reopen Retail initiative provides guidance and tools for operating retail stores safely during the pandemic. Some resources will be available to the public for a limited time before becoming members-only resources. These include:

  • Downloadable and printable signs reminding customers to follow social distancing guidelines and safety measures in retail stores. The signs are available in English, Spanish and nine other languages.
  • An Operation Open Doors checklist of Employment, Logistics/Operations and Health Policy tasks to complete when reopening retail stores. NRF recommends adapting the guidance to your specific situation.

NCR also offers our guide to cleaning and sanitizing your POS terminals, self-checkouts and ATMs.


Emerging strategies

Many of the above strategies have become industry standards by now. But there are a few other emerging strategies that can help you safeguard customers, drive repeat business and grow loyalty in new ways.

70% of Gen Z shoppers say contactless payments are a ‘must have’ option for merchants.

Offering contactless payments

Prior to the pandemic, the future for contactless payments was looking bright. One recent study revealed that 75 percent of millennials and 70 percent of Gen Z shoppers were satisfied with contactless payments, with the latter group saying they're a ‘must have’ option for merchants.

Contactless payments use one of two platforms:

  • Self-service systems. These involve both hardware and software, e.g., fixed self-checkout scanners at grocery stores. These systems can be modified so customers don’t need to contact a touch screen during checkout. See how NCR is helping retailers create touchless self-checkout.
  • Mobile payments. This form of payment uses retailer-specific mobile apps (think: Starbucks) or third-party consumer technology companies (think: Apple Pay or Samsung Pay). Accepting mobile payments enables you to build relationships with customers based on their geography and purchasing histories, offer a consistent customer experience and integrate payments with loyalty programs and store promotions. NCR also offers mobile payment integration guidance.


Going virtual

  • E-commerce is another form of contactless commerce—it's a perfect time for retailers to evaluate their user experience and consider expanding product offerings. For example, Mike Rittler, head of retail card services at TD Bank, suggests making gift cards available to customers who might not be in a buying mode but want to support your brand during a time when your cash flows are less predictable.
  • Launching a social media marketing strategy is a great way to stay top of mind among customers, too. Rittler suggests providing physical store updates and answering any questions customers might have in a timely manner.

No matter what unknowns the future holds, one thing is true: technology can help you adapt. From contactless payment to digital signage to ecommerce, having the right technology in place can provide the agility retailers need to roll with the changes while keeping customers safer—and helping encourage them to come back.

Not engaging your customers at the pump could be a lost revenue opportunity, learn why.

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