The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a significant toll on the economy worldwide, and the retail sector has been especially hard hit. While many retailers are still in the reactive phase of store closures due to the drastic shift in consumerism, there's an imperative need to outline a plan that will enable retailers to adapt their operations and protect their customers and employees once they can reopen. Many of these retailers, in the short term, can make simple procedural changes to their operations (retail stores, distribution centers, etc.), while others will require a complete overhaul of previous processes and procedures as well as their systems and devices that both customers and employees use.
To understand the context of these changes, it's important to highlight the key guidelines that have been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and how retailers must pivot their strategies in order to address them.
Maintaining Social Distancing Rules
With many stores deemed “essential,” such as grocery stores and pharmacies, changes to ensure social distancing are already in place. For example, simple changes such as placing tape on the floor to guide customers to maintain the recommended six feet threshold are showing up wherever there's the need to queue up, including at the cashier, customer service desk or store entrance. Additionally, maximum occupancy for a given store has been reduced in some cases and enforced by door greeters or automatic counting devices.
Implementing Infection Protection Measures
Good hand hygiene is another critical element in reducing the spread of the coronavirus. To promote this, many retailers are providing gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for shopping carts and customers’ use while in-store. For the long term, retailers should be looking to the healthcare industry, which is at the forefront of hand hygiene compliance, for guidance. For example, one innovative solution by HITactics that has been proven in hospitals uses Bluetooth sensors and/or tags that link to mobile apps with context-aware alerts. These alerts provide audible reminders to wash your hands and adhere to other beneficial hand washing protocols.
Minimize Face-to-Face Contact and Activities Requiring Physical Touch
The checkout process is another area that provides potential high risks for infection due to face-to-face contact. Companies are looking for solutions on how to reduce this in nonintrusive ways that still allow for a positive human experience. Many grocery retailers, for example, have quickly implemented a clear Plexiglas divider to segregate the space between the customer and the cashier. Retailers that have been slow to take up contact-less payment with physical credit cards or mobile wallets (e.g., Apple Pay or Google Pay) are now expediting implementing these technologies to further enhance the “no touch” environment and make it safer for both parties involved in the transaction. For the long term, retailers can look to invest in RFID technology for restocking and managing product. This investment would significantly impact both the safety of the customers for touchless checkout and for employees when restocking.
Revamp Policies and Procedures With Ongoing Training
From here on out, retailers will need to conduct regular and sustained training programs addressing ongoing changes to procedures. These trainings will need to be done frequently throughout this transition to ensure employees feel safe and confident in performing their duties. New digital training technology and platforms, such as Wingspan and others, can efficiently deliver an easy-to-follow single view of what's expected to ensure employees and customers are protected while in-store. These technologies can also be easily updated to reflect changing requirements and guidelines. Furthermore, these learning solutions deliver insights directly to mobile devices and provide short, real-time learning to increase compliance rates.
Generous Leave Policies for Employees
The guidelines around in-store safety and health are designed to not only reduce the risk of infection, but to also instill greater employee confidence in the safety of their workplace and security of their job. Employees should not fear losing their jobs or wages due to an infected person spreading the virus in the workplace. It's critical that retailers instill confidence in their staff. Removing fear will go a long way to align retailers’ and employees’ interests when dealing with this situation.
As retailers grapple with the many changes and options available for creating greater safety, there's an easy but essential first step they should take. First, they should conduct a detailed step-by-step review of current operations and identify potential “hot spots” that need to be addressed to provide a higher level of comfort and confidence. While this critical step seems focused only on the here and now, this analysis should be conducted over the long term with the goal to build out and implement safeguards into the overall customer experience. The key is to ensure safety, but not to damage, disturb or otherwise negatively impact the customer experience today or tomorrow.
While what I've discussed above has focused on in-store operations, accelerating your digital presence and capabilities is increasingly critical. Serving customers at home will also require a total rethink as expectations have only increased during this time. Following the pandemic, this won't change. In fact, it will only continue to accelerate.
Change has never been more dramatic than what we're seeing now, but companies that “seize the day” and take the initiative to “virus proof” their operations will emerge stronger when we come out of this pandemic.
Karl Swensen is associate partner, consumer products, retail and logistics at Infosys Consulting, a business and technology consultancy.