Retail Heroes Stand Tall in Tough Times

Store associates have become heroes by supplying essential items during the pandemic. Now, as stores reopen, retailers need to live up to the high bar set by their frontline workers.

Retail matters today like never before. As a result, store associates and delivery workers have earned high respect from shoppers, politicians, celebrities, and everyone who has needed essential items during the shelter-at-home crisis.

Well, not exactly everyone. In one online debate, retail insiders argued about whether associates were heroes or victims. (Check out the LinkedIn thread here).

Responsibly Reopening Stores

Now that we are in the midst of rebooting the economy with 40-plus states relaxing shelter-in-place rules, businesses are making plans to resume work. This includes, retailers who are gradually re-opening stores.

This is a big moment for retailers as they assess their specific market segment, business model, and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Several detailed playbooks have emerged to help guide the process. Here is a curated list of the best recommendations for safely protecting shoppers and workers in newly reopened stores.

The most detailed playbook is “Reopening Retail Safely.”It was created by retailers who are members of The Store Operations Council, which was founded by Cathy Hotka, principal at Cathy Hotka & Associates.

“Retail is moving at light speed and the best way to thrive is to share learnings with each other,” says Hotka, “It’s really exciting to see, for example, a furniture chain getting a great idea to reopen from a beauty chain or a grocer.”


Here are key takeaways from The Store Operations Council playbook:

  • Project competence, reliability and calm by taking good care of associates, expanded training, and clear communications. Recognize that customers and associates are nervous. Provide meaningful training to employees to establish credibility, adhere to compliance issues (especially sanitization), and empower associates to carry out new tasks and responsibilities. This includes following CDC guidelines and local regulations. In addition, communicate regularly with associates, including those that have been furloughed or laid off. And, finally, create and deploy new signage to communicate new policies to both associates and customers.
  • Focus on health. Engage industrial cleaning services. Post new safety protocols where associates can see them every day. Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, plastic face shields, and plexiglass shields at cash registers, pharmacies and customer service desks. Extend telemedicine benefits to associates and their families. Consider offering temperature testing for employees and customers.
  • Be transparent with shoppers. Enable two-way texting between shoppers and associates. Create videos about new cleaning and safety operations. Explain out-of-stocks and why limits are placed on sought-after products. Also, explain why deliveries may be delayed or incomplete. Establish a clear go-to staffer or communication channel for customer questions about COVID-19 matters.
  • Create a reopening team at headquarters. This group will manage communications, analyze consumer trends, and monitor changes in buying behavior. It will be essential to manage out-of-season merchandise, mark downs, offloading product to discounters, and opening up new agreements with alternate suppliers. Also, establish a long-term approach to diversifying product resources, converting suppliers into drop shippers, ordering in smaller quantities but more often, and adjusting merchandise mixes in each store to even out shortages and delays.
  • Managing returns. For some retailers, it will be wise to relax return dates to avoid long lines at return counters. However, other retailers may need to refuse returns on certain items such as personal care products, food and some items removed from packaging.
  • Altering store layouts. To support CDC guidelines, many stores are opening up aisle space by removing merchandise displays, installing directional signage in aisles to control shopper flow, and marking the floor to promote social distancing at checkout. Food retailers have removed salad bars, self-serve stations, sampling stations, and coffee creamer stations. Many retailers also carefully monitor foot traffic to enforce density limits.
  • Expand the contactless imperative. This begins with designated pickup locations in stores, parking lots and curbside. To make this work smoothly and efficiently, retailers will have to adjust store processes and labor allocation. Some will explore pickup lockers. Many retailers will expand contactless payment systems, such as Apple Pay, Google Wallet and the retailer’s own mobile app. Finally, this could boost scan-and-go technology, where shoppers use their own mobile phones to scan items and self-checkout. Another technology that could get a boost is voice command for customer and associate support throughout the store.

The Store Operations Council playbook covers may other areas including: sanitizing in-store electronics, new procedures for maintaining store exteriors and interiors, facility security, restrooms, fitting rooms, and planning a pre-opening walk through.

Other recently released playbooks include “Open for Business – A Blueprint for Shopping Safe,” created by the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Retail Federation, and “Sharing What We’ve Learned: A Blueprint for Businesses,” from Kroger.

As a sign of the times, Mattel just released the action hero collection “Thank You Heroes,” which includes delivery drivers who bring essential products to home doorsteps. A donation for each purchase will be made to the #FirstResponderFirst fund.

It is easy to understand why retail’s frontline workers have earned respect during the peak of the pandemic and this makes it easy to understand that retail matters. And not just in a crisis, but every day. So, let’s make sure retailers live up to this high bar by opening stores in a careful, thoughtful and safe manner that protects customers and workers alike.

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