NEW YORK, United States — At a Target in Arizona, a shopper threw an entire display of face masks to the ground. At a Skechers in Oklahoma, a customer threw shoeboxes at an employee who had asked her to put on a mask. At the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania, shoppers tweeted photos of maskless crowds streaming past signs asking them to wear face coverings and practice social distancing.
As retailers cautiously reopen after months on lockdown, they are finding themselves on the frontlines of a new battlefield: enforcing safety measures meant to prevent the spread of coronavirus. In an industry where the customer is always right, brands are struggling with how to police behaviour in stores that would have been normal six months ago but now carry potentially deadly consequences.
Masks are the main flashpoint. A Pew survey in June found that two-thirds of Americans say they wear masks in stores all or most of the time. That leaves tens of millions of shoppers who don’t (and the survey didn’t ask whether those in the first group wear their masks below the nose, reducing their effectiveness).
In the UK, face masks were finally made mandatory inside stores on Tuesday, with shoppers subject to £100 fines for violating the rules. France is considering tightening its laws around masks too. Currently, they’re only mandatory on public transportation. In Southwest France, a bus driver was assaulted and killed last week by angry passengers who refused to wear masks.
The brawls that took place at Target and Skechers are rare. More often, stores introduce rules that shoppers simply ignore. Employees don’t feel empowered to order customers to put on a mask or to order them to leave if they refuse. Government guidelines vary from country to country, and within the US, state by state.
At the same time, consumers and retail workers are pressuring brands to be more proactive, as customers who fail to wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines put everyone else in the store at risk. Some retailers that relied on voluntary mask policies and friendly floor stickers to enforce social distancing are toughening up. Among major fashion retailers, though, mandatory policies are rare.
It’s just as important a business decision as a health one.
Some see a strict masks policy as better for their brands in the long run. Veja, for example, is barring maskless customers from entering its stores in New York and Paris, and has dedicated retail associates standing outside to enforce the rule.
“If they don’t follow the rules, and the numbers get higher … what will that do? We’d have to shut down again,” said founder Sébastien Kopp. “So it’s just as important a business decision as a health one.”
A Patch work of Rules
The science around masks is clear: wearing one greatly reduces the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected over 12 million people worldwide.
It’s often up to retailers to enforce their use, however. Only some US states require facial protection, including New York, Massachusetts and North Carolina. Elsewhere, including newer hot spots like Texas, Arizona and Florida, it’s up to cities and counties to set their own rules.
The discrepancies are causing confusion and contribute to shoppers’ lax attitudes, said Brian Dodge, chief operating officer of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, an American retail trade group. In early July, RILA, whose members include Gap Inc., Target, Ulta Beauty and Levi’s, wrote a letter to the National Governors Association asking that states make wearing face coverings mandatory. Last week, the American Apparel & Footwear Association sent a letter to President Trump asking his administration to "institute federal face mask guidelines to assist retail stores as the country continues efforts to safely reopen."
The strongest outcome will be if the government steps in.
“It’s important for customers to know what’s expected of them, and there shouldn’t be any guessing,” Dodge said. “The strongest outcome will be if the government steps in.”
A nationwide mandate is unlikely in the near future. Trump wore a mask in public for the first time only recently and has been ambivalent about their wider use.
How Brands Should Handle the Situation
RILA recommends retailers place signs at store entrances to recommend shoppers wear masks. Dodge said stores should also place employees at the front to hand out masks to shoppers who forget to bring one.
“Give people the benefit of the doubt and offering a mask is a subtle but direct signal,” he said.
What to do once a maskless shopper enters the store is less clear. Many retailers have advised employees to avoid escalating disputes over masks, said Bill Thorne, a senior vice president of the National Retail Federation, another trade group, in an email.
“Many retailers have said they do not want to become the face mask police,” he said.
Many retailers have said they do not want to become the face mask police.
Direct-to-consumer menswear brand Untuckit is encouraging shoppers to wear masks, but will not force the issue, said Director of Retail Brent Paulsen. If a shopper declines, the store will close down for other patrons until they leave.
“It's really hard to tell a customer coming to a store to leave,” Paulsen said. “We are trying to balance safety while staying away from creating a confrontational experience.”
Kopp, with Veja, sees things differently.
“I don’t care if we lose 50 percent of our customers,” he said. “I would prefer that the other half feel secure, and know that we are taking care of them.”
Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consultancy firm A Line Partners, said stores should feel empowered to enforce strict rules, especially when their retail employees’ health is at risk.
I don’t care if we lose 50 percent of our customers. I would prefer that the other half feel secure.
“If a store or restaurant can say no shoes, no shirt, no service, masks can be enforced,” she said.
Retailers that don’t enforce mask policies could also open themselves up to lawsuits from employees who get sick, said Perry Kramer, a managing partner at Retail Consulting Partnership.
“Employees will be filing class-action lawsuits down the road for not being tough enough about this,” he said. “You’re looking out for employees, but also thinking long-term.”
The New Normal
Kramer and Santaniello said consumers will eventually adapt to pandemic shopping rules, much as they did to stricter airport security measures after 9/11.
Kramer said retailers should also be spending money on extra security guards, so that retail associates aren’t forced to handle violent confrontations themselves. Employees also need to be trained on the best ways to enforce mask rules and how to handle belligerent customers.
If a store or restaurant can say no shoes, no shirt, no service, masks can be enforced.
These measures will take time and money, both of which are in short supply at many brands right now. Brands paying for Covid-19 protective gear, security and other costs are already struggling with declining sales from the months of lockdown and general consumer disinterest in nonessential items like fashion. A slew of brands, including Brooks Brothers, J.Crew, Neiman Marcus, Lucky Brand and J.C. Penney have filed for bankruptcy.
“If retailers are going to be serious about it, they are going to need to add resources,” Kramer said.
Santaniello said retailers should want to be on the list of brands that took these safety measures seriously early on.
“Nobody wants to be the store where shoppers say, ‘Oh... that’s probably where I got Covid,’” she said. “It’s uncomfortable, and it can get touchy and political. But we’re at a point where you might get into fights with people who don’t want to wear masks, or your store becomes a viral picture of hundreds of people not following social distancing and getting everybody sick. What’s worse?”