Navigating The Return Of COVID Safety Policies

It can be hard to keep up with what the proper COVID precautions are these days. With the new, more contagious delta variant sending COVID case numbers skyrocketing, many of the health and safety mandates that had previously been lifted are being reintroduced in places with low vaccination rates. And that means retail stores are once again having to figure out the right balance of safety guidelines for their customers, their employees and overall public health—and how to implement them in a way that will not sacrifice sales. 

New Safety Mandates

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two of the most effective ways to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 are getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in indoor public spaces. As such, certain states, counties and cities have been implementing new mandates to encourage that behavior in the hopes of curtailing any new COVID surges. Cities like Los Angeles, New Orleans and Washington DC have all recently reintroduced their mask mandates—while New York City just announced it will soon require proof of vaccination to enter a variety of indoor spaces, like restaurants, bars and gyms.

But even in places where these mandates are not required, some retailers are choosing to update their guidelines anyway. Apple reinstated its mask requirements for employees and customers regardless of vaccination status in more than half of its stores. Both Walmart and Target are now requiring employees in high-risk counties to wear masks, but stopped short of requiring them of all customers as well—for now, they are only recommending that fully vaccinated customers wear them. Other retailers are expected to follow suit, said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail: “They’re almost like competitive trendsetters in a way.”  

But it can be hard to tell what the appropriate steps are for mattress retailers. Traditionally, the mattress buying process includes dedicated support from a retail sales associate and in-person rest-testing. This often takes more time and includes more face-to-face conversation than other retail store settings. 

The question becomes: how do you provide a safe and comfortable shopping setting for your most cautious customers, without alienating those who are willing to take on more risk? 

First and foremost, safety for your employees should always be front of mind when making these kinds of decisions—and this is especially true at a time when many retail companies are struggling to find workers. Thoughtful safety guidelines, like requiring all shoppers to wear masks when the rate of infection is high, could be a vital part to attracting people back into these customer-facing roles.

Updated masking policies may also help your customers feel safer and more comfortable as well. Given the increased risk of the delta variant, many consumers are once again ramping up their own COVID safety precautions—some simply out of an abundance of caution, while others are looking to protect children too young to be vaccinated or any immunocompromised loved ones in their lives. Reinstating mask requirements or limiting the number of people in your store at a time may be enough to make these types of customers feel more comfortable shopping in person. The same goes for requiring proof of vaccination. While retail stores are not included in New York City’s new mandate, perhaps—given the more intimate setting of the shopping experience—specialty sleep stores may still want to consider adopting the policy.

Unfortunately, there is still a subset of the consumer base that is resistant to these essential safety precautions, whether due to misinformation about the virus or simply pandemic burnout. This has put a lot of retailers in a tough spot, especially those that have struggled financially throughout the pandemic and were hoping to see some relief. 

They want the business, especially after the year we just had,” Luisa Borrell, professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, told the New York Times. They say the customer is always right, but if theres not a national mandate, its going to be hard for them to enforce that.”

While mask-wearing, in theory, should help protect retail workers—in some places, it can also make their job more difficult, as they are tasked with enforcing the policy among disinterested or hostile customers. You, of course, do not necessarily want to lose these customers, but that doesn’t mean they have to sacrifice basic safety measures to appease them. 

So how do you strike the right chord with both groups of people?

Try balancing any new in-person safety guidelines with more alternative shopping options—and be sure to properly publicize any changes you are making. 

Offering more convenient omni-channel shopping opportunities can help you serve all customers, no matter what their risk tolerance is. And, thankfully, most retailers are more well-versed in the digital sphere than ever before. Between official lockdowns and more intense personal safety measures, investing in ecommerce became essential to retail survival last year. And though it may have been challenging, honing those capabilities will not only make it easier for retailers to adapt in the future—it has also made consumers more comfortable shifting their shopping habits as well. According to research from PYMNTS, 92% of consumers have placed an online order recently, even with the option of in-store shopping available to them. 

A more robust digital presence can also help improve the in-store shopping experience in the face of rising COVID cases and new masking mandates. By offering up-to-date inventory information online, retailers can help consumers narrow down their selections—cutting down the time they have to spend in-store rest-testing. Buy online, pick up in-store options can even be done curbside. These are both great options for people who are being extra careful—and those that are less than enthused about following in-store safety policies. And by marketing digital and omni-channel opportunities as more convenient options, customers are less likely to feel like they’re missing out on anything. 

In-person safety guidelines don’t have to look or feel like a drag either. Dedicated room displays not only allows for proper social distancing, but more privacy as well—which some consumers are looking for during the rest-testing process. And by display bedroom furniture alongside the mattress options, you create new opportunities for add-on purchases as well. 

While we had all hoped that the threat of the pandemic would eventually just go away, it’s clear that it’s more likely to evolve slowly in fits and starts. Being ready to adapt your stores’ policies and digital capabilities when necessary will be key to keeping your customers and employees safe—and your sales up. 

Read more here, here and here.