One of the biggest controversies facing retail stores reopening during the era of COVID-19 is whether to require customers to wear face masks.  Many states and municipalities make a recommendation about mask wearing, but stay clear of any enforceable requirement.  That lands the decision squarely on the shoulders of business owners, and quite frankly there’s already a lot of burden resting there!

Our store has not reopened to shoppers yet, so we haven’t experienced the pushback that other retailers are receiving about mask wearing.  But as we invite our staff back to work after months of sheltering-in-place, we have learned that they are leery of being exposed to the virus by customers.  Many of my staff members are older, or live with someone who is at risk, and of course I don’t want anyone to contract a potentially deadly disease as a result of working in my shop.

While the CDC has not come out with a definitive statement regarding the use of face masks, they do “recommend wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”  We know that even with the best of intentions, it is impossible to always maintain 6-feet social distancing – which the CDC says is important to slowing the spread of the virus – in a retail setting.  

We’ve decided that we will be requiring customers wear masks when we open. If you are also doing this, it’s important that you communicate this requirement to the public every chance you get.  Social media, email blasts, phone conversations and door signage need to let customers know that they will be expected to wear a mask.  (You might use the term “face covering” to be more inclusive, since some individuals prefer to use a bandana or even a face shield.  There are also some for whom a traditional face mask is not an option.)

We created a “Masks on Monroe” poster for the businesses on Monroe Street wanting to have face coverings as a requirement for shopping.  This helps the stores present a unified front, and the poster has the phrase “for everyone’s safety” in large print.  Emphasizing that you are concerned about your staff and your customers’ wellbeing is a key part of the messaging.  If you need a clever graphic for your PR or signage, please check out Jessica Esch’s COVID-19 art, available as a free download courtesy of the artist and Shinebolt.

It’s also important that you have disposable masks on hand for those who want to enter the store and don’t have a mask with them.  These are now widely available for less than a dollar.  We have ours on a stand in our entryway with a welcome sign asking customers to use the hand sanitizer provided and put on a mask before entering.

The second question stores face is whether to have your employees wear masks. Some states require that retail employees wear face coverings, and say that employers must provide them. Others do not.  It makes sense that you require your staff to wear masks if customers will be wearing them.  We have also found that customers who are concerned about exposure (and unfortunately, not everyone is) want the reassurance of knowing that any staff members they come in contact with will be masked.

We are not a culture that is used to wearing face masks, and I must admit I haven’t really gotten used to the feeling yet.  But I ‘m concerned that we do everything that we can to halt the spread of this terrible virus, even if it involves a little discomfort – or the loss of a customer who is not willing to comply.

Happy Retailing, 

Carol “Orange” Schroeder

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