By Tara Gibson - November 10, 2020
There has been a fair amount of press recently about COVID-19 customer conflict prevention training following the launch of an online course by the National Retail Federation. However, while the course can be of benefit in certain circumstances, it is not a total solution to the issue of customer conflicts in retail environments.
Last month, the charitable arm of the National Retail Federation (NRF) launched a widely-reported COVID-19 customer conflict prevention training program in conjunction with the Crisis Prevention Institute – “an international training organization that specializes in the safe management of disruptive and assaultive behavior”.
The training program was launched in response to an increase in enquiries about de-escalation techniques following a series of assaults on retail employees trying to enforce social distancing and mask wearing rules. According to the NRF's executive director Bill Thorne, the course provides an opportunity for retailers to communicate a safe shopping message to customers.
The objective of the online course according to Susan Driscoll – the president of the Crisis Prevention Institute - is to “teach employees how to recognize what stage of a crisis a consumer may be in and what they can do to diffuse the situation”. The course does this by offering employees tips on how to communicate empathy and support verbally and nonverbally.
While it is important retail stores do everything they can to enhance the safety of employees, and commendable that the National Retail Federation should try to reduce assaults on retail staff, the issues exist of how well an online training course can prepare employees for real world scenarios, and whether employees should be responsible for enforcing coronavirus restrictions anyway.
Unfortunately, the below startling events and reactions to enforcing COVID regulations have ended in tragedy:
With regards to who should be responsible for enforcing coronavirus restrictions, the comments section alongside the NY Times story covering the launch of the training program makes interesting reading. Many commentators believe asking retail staff to be responsible for enforcing COVID rules is a mistake and that stores should simply refuse admission to anybody not wearing a mask.
Inasmuch as retail stores would like to pick and choose who they allow through their doors, the retail industry cannot afford to turn away paying customers. Over the past ten years, the industry has been going through a “retail apocalypse” due to competition from eCommerce, rising rents, and changes in spending habits; and, for some retailers, COVID-19 could be the last nail in the coffin.
Consequently, while some stores have rules requiring customers to wear masks and maintain social distancing, they do not always enforce the rules nor ask employees to. One contributor to a marketplace.org webinar likened the situation to dealing with shoplifters in which employees are told “Don't chase the thief. It's not safe for you, and it's not safe to the people around you”.
A second contributor added: “It’s simply too much to ask a front-line retail worker who is already concerned for her health during this crisis and still showing up for work, to also intervene in something that could escalate quite rapidly.” Consequently, while COVID-19 customer conflict prevention training can be of benefit in certain circumstances, it appears many retailers won't be taking advantage of it, and will be better protecting staff by implementing other measures.
During these difficult times for the retail industry, it is important businesses are able to welcome as many customers as possible and provide them with a safe and positive shopping experience while maintaining the safety of employees. To find a balance between retail profitability and staff safety, businesses should look at three areas – physical controls, communication, and threat reporting.
There are many types of physical controls businesses can implement to separate customers and maintain a distance between them. Ideally, each business should conduct a risk assessment to identify where bottlenecks may occur (i.e. entrances, tills, lifts, etc.) and reconfigure premises, widen aisles, and introduce one-way systems to prevent bottlenecks developing.
The physical controls should be supported by clear signage, floor markings, and capacity limitations. It is also important staff are protected from the risk of infection by Perspex screens in locations where they will be in frequent close contact with customers, and provided with branded personal protective equipment to communicate a safe shopping message to customers.
Communicating to the public how the business is providing a safe shopping experience is equally as important as the measures it implements. Events such as the disgraceful scenes at the Massachusetts ice cream parlor could have been avoided if better communication had been provided in advance so customers had reasonable expectations before they arrived.
On arrival, customers should be greeted with further reminders of the measures implemented to protect them and store staff. The communications don't have to be authoritative or doom-laden. There are plenty of examples of amusing yet effective signage on the Internet that can help customers better accept restrictions in good humor.
Not so amusing is the fact that America is in the midst of a mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The additional anxieties attributable to the pandemic can result in personality changes and mood swings and make ordinarily-rational people act aggressively and unpredictably – making it less likely that empathy and support will be effective de-escalation techniques.
To better protect employees in retail environments, it is far more practical to equip staff with mobile panic buttons apps that can be used to report threats to managers and security; or - if a situation escalates quickly – to call 9-1-1 with two taps of a mobile phone screen. The apps can be configured to simultaneously alert coworkers to threats so that they can either help support the threatened employee or move other customers to a safe area.
As mentioned previously, COVID-19 customer conflict prevention training for workers can be of benefit in certain retail environment scenarios, and it can help individuals become more understanding and supportive of each other. However, by itself, it is not a total solution to the threat of irrational and unresponsive customers. Alternative measures can better protect employees in retail environments, and technology tools can be extremely helpful.
Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12, State & Local, Higher Ed, Corporate, and Healthcare, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!
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