Keeping Employees and Customers Safe During a Unique Holiday Shopping Season
After suffering much pain amid the pandemic, generating revenue during the upcoming holiday season is critical for retailers — particularly those considered nonessential. But the season also presents unique challenges across all industry segments, especially given the virus's recent resurgence in many communities.
Here’s how retailers can help ensure employee and customer safety in the coming weeks.
In recent years, retailers have sought to lengthen the holiday shopping season to boost profitability. While the season has historically begun the day after Thanksgiving, stores have increasingly advertised sales in mid-November and have even opened their doors on Thanksgiving Day.
The industry’s expectations for 2020, however, are different. Many stores are not expecting the usual Black Friday crowds, and some are not planning to be open on Thanksgiving. Instead, retailers are largely trying to spread out sale events and direct customers to their websites, in part to avoid overcrowding or otherwise chaotic environments.
Still, retailers must be ready for a potential increase in foot traffic, along with potential conflicts involving customers. And that’s not just because of holiday bargains: COVID-19 cases are growing nationally, which may prompt consumers to seek to build stockpiles of food, household goods, and other staples in preparation for potential lockdowns this winter. For some stores, that could result in larger crowds between now and Christmas — and greater danger for customers and employees.
Beyond the Fundamentals
In many respects, the best way stores can protect both shoppers and workers from the coronavirus is to continue doing what they have since the pandemic began: Promote good hygiene and social distancing.
Among other steps, that means requiring all customers and employees to wear masks, distributing hand sanitizer, limiting the number of people in stores at any given time, ensuring that customers maintain a six-foot distance, creating one-way lanes to better control paths of travel, and keeping fitting rooms (if applicable) closed. Employees should be reminded of these priorities daily and provided with checklists they can use to ensure policies are enforced.
One national, big-box retailer’s director of insurance and risk management I recently spoke with noted that his holiday checklist also includes:
- Conducting temperature checks for employees upon arrival.
- Sanitizing and disinfecting surfaces throughout stores with greater frequency.
- Making use of electronic coupons.
- Providing customers with options, including curbside pickup, home delivery, and buy online/pickup in-store.
Retailers should pay particular attention to checkout areas, which have often been chaotic during the pandemic and past holiday seasons, but they must carefully consider their options. Adding floor decals with checkout lane numbers and/or investing in lane/queue management systems, for example, could help streamline checkout areas and promote social distancing.
But signage and technology cannot help deescalate customer conflicts in a way that people can — and, depending on a particular store’s layout, may not be practical. Positioning security guards and customer ambassadors near entrances and checkout areas, on the other hand, can help manage crowds, prevent and minimize disputes, and ensure adherence to social distancing policies, but could contribute to greater workplace safety risks.
Following Action Plans
In addition to taking these steps, it’s important to ensure you have a plan that enables you to promptly identify and isolate employees who report COVID-19 symptoms while also respecting their privacy. As you prepare for the holiday rush, it’s important to:
- Instruct employees to immediately report to their supervisors if they experience COVID-19 symptoms or witness other employees showing symptoms.
- Ensure the availability of a dedicated holding area — other than an infirmary or first aid room — for employees who show COVID-19 symptoms. This area should have separate access to the store exterior.
- Immediately clean, sanitize, and disinfect symptomatic employees’ work areas, tools, and equipment in a manner consistent with CDC guidelines.
- Work with local health officials to conduct contact tracing as needed and advise any employees who have come into close contact with symptomatic employees to take precautions, including self-monitoring for symptoms.
- Consider developing a plan for transporting symptomatic employees away from stores, especially if they did not arrive by personal vehicle.
As the big-box retailer’s risk manager noted, it’s also vital to review crisis and emergency plans. That’s especially important in light of social activism and unrest that could continue through the holidays and potential violence against retail workers tasked with enforcing COVID-19 prevention policies.
During an undoubtedly unique holiday shopping season, retailers must remain vigilant in preventing the spread of the coronavirus while encouraging the spread of holiday cheer. Taking these steps can help stores protect customers and employees during a crucial sales period.