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COVID-19

Ahead of the holidays, retailers compete on store safety

Marielle Segarra Nov 12, 2020
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Signs are placed to direct traffic inside the Westfield Santa Anita shopping mall in Arcadia, California, in October. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Ahead of the holidays, retailers compete on store safety

Marielle Segarra Nov 12, 2020
Heard on:
Signs are placed to direct traffic inside the Westfield Santa Anita shopping mall in Arcadia, California, in October. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images
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If you look at the websites of major retailers right now, you’ll find long lists of their COVID safety precautions. Some you might be familiar with: plexiglass shields, mask requirements, limits on the number of customers allowed in the store at one time. 

And heading into the holidays, stores are trying some new things too.

“A lot of retailers are offering reservations in certain areas, where people can come in, meet with a specific shopper, kind of get all of their shopping done at once. Or like at Target, for example, they can reserve a spot in line,” said Lauren Beitelspacher, who teaches marketing at Babson College.

Target is also setting aside more parking spots for curbside pickup and allowing customers to scan their own items, touch-free, and then pay with their phones. Meanwhile, Walmart is touting its own touch-free payment app. And Best Buy has an option where you can buy online and pick up at a store in an hour.

This is starting to feel a bit like a safety competition. Because it is.

“I definitely think it’s a competitive advantage now,” Beitelspacher said. “No retailer is going to survive if they are seen as a superspreader.”

A lot of their potential customers are still worried about getting the virus. So each of these retailers is trying to position its stores as the safest option. “Just like a few years ago, retailers had to convince customers that they were protecting their data; now they have to convince customers that they’re protecting their health,” Beitelspacher said.

Otherwise those people might just shop online — probably at Amazon.

These changes will cut into retailers’ profits. “It’s costing them in just the materials of putting up the plexiglass dividers, putting the signage up, setting the store up as with display so it’s easy to get around and not be crowded,” said Craig Rowley, senior client partner for retail consulting at Korn Ferry. They’ve also had to hire more workers to constantly sanitize store surfaces, he said.

But as long as the virus is around, these are costs retailers will just have to accept.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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