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How to Build Customer Confidence Through Clean Stores

ISSA’s director of education share tips on avoiding ‘hygiene theater’
Photograph: Shutterstock

Hygiene and cleanliness often go hand in hand, but adoption and follow-through with measures like disinfection, handwashing and hand-sanitizer use within commercial facilities were not as consistent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Without the widespread threat of infection, cleaning was previously more focused on appearance than on protecting public health, and it was not as strategic as it needs to be today.

The pandemic has made it clear that customers demand cleanliness, and this new emphasis, especially in public places like retail stores, is here to stay. Grocery stores can be confident in their readiness against pathogens and reassure customers and employees by committing to cleanliness and effectively communicating their approach to the public.

Throughout the pandemic, many grocery retailers have faced the challenge of restoring trust and assuring customers they’re doing everything in their power to keep them safe and healthy. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), consumers are most influenced by their trust in a brand, which also includes places where they’re sure of safety and cleanliness. Thus, grocery retailers must prioritize cleaning, disinfection and infection prevention to give customers peace of mind.

In addition to considering their customers, grocery-store owners must also take the necessary steps to reassure and retain employees. A recent survey by Edelman found that only 14% of employees around the world are confident in their CEO’s and management’s leadership regarding return-to-work policies. For those employees who have already returned to work, 42% said safety measures enacted by management were either ineffective or not strictly enforced, according to an Envoy blog.

During the height of the pandemic, it seemed necessary to invest in every cleaning strategy and solution. However, as we learn more about the way in which SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads, we have realized that some of these measures can play into “hygiene theater” but don’t correlate with lowering infection risk. Managers should assess whether the cleaning procedures they’ve adopted at the onset of the pandemic still serve their needs and their stakeholders’ needs.

Communicating Cleanliness

Communicating new or revised protocols and safeguards to both customers and employees is extremely important. Reports show that consumers take note of the cleanliness of businesses they frequent. Employees also worry about the level of cleanliness at their workplace. One survey from hygiene products vendor Ambius found that more than half of respondents (60%) said they would leave their current role for a lower-paying but healthier work environment. It has become common for people to ask potential employers about health and hygiene practices. Therefore, managers must properly communicate protocols and expectations among internal and external audiences to ensure everyone feels as safe as possible when visiting or working in the grocery retail space.

What You Can Do Now

Managers can consider the strategies below to uphold cleanliness and highlight their store’s commitment to public health and safety, without falling for the hygiene theater trap.

1. Outline cleaning procedures and frequencies: The CDC recommends fully cleaning and disinfecting a facility where a person has tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 24 hours. However, when it comes to everyday cleaning, large scale disinfecting isn’t always necessary. It’s best to develop a plan based on the types of surfaces and high-touch areas within the facility and then educate cleaning teams on when, what and how to clean and disinfect them properly.

2. Provide staff and patrons with PPE and hygiene essentials:Customers may forget to bring a mask every time they visit your grocery store, especially with mask mandates and recommendations in different states and cities shifting as cases of the delta variant rise and fall. Have disposable masks on hand for all, as well as gloves for employees. Regularly check the stock of hand sanitizer stations that are strategically placed near entry and exit points.

3. Implement digital signage and contactless payment technology: The digital signage market has seen exponential growth in the last year. Some businesses have been able to use it to alert employees and customers to safety measures in real time, including maximum capacity alerts, social-distance flows, and even how-to guides for wearing PPE.Meanwhile, upgrading to digital POS systems for contactless payment at checkout will resonate well with consumers. 

4. Re-evaluate cleaning chemicals and technology:Often, employees use more cleaning product than necessary. Consider systems that help to minimize waste and maximize sustainability. Larger grocery retailers may also want to invest in electrostatic sprayers to disinfect surfaces effectively and quickly. To improve indoor air quality, use vacuums that utilize HEPA filters that remove dust particles, allergens and pathogens, and assess whether the chemicals you are using to clean and disinfect are free of fragrances, preservatives and other additives that may irritate employees or guests.

5. Make cleaning visible: Have employees clean and disinfect during operating hours. This is a great way to provide customers with a sense of security, as they can see cleaning take place. For tougher jobs like entrance mat cleaning or mop-head sanitization, consider partnering with a third-party service provider that can take care of these tasks on a regular basis. Seeing these cleaning professionals in your grocery store will reassure customers and employees that you take cleanliness and safety seriously. 

6. Implement color-coded cleaning solutions: Color-coded products can include mops, microfiber cleaning cloths and even plastic bottles that help employees differentiate cleaner from disinfectant or sanitizer. This is an easy step to make sure that surfaces are effectively cleaned and that there is no cross-contamination among restrooms, dining areas and other common spaces.

7. Invest in proper training and certification:Taking the time to train staff on how to perform cleaning tasks and properly use specialized cleaning equipment can save time and money while also reducing the risk of injury. Consider committing to an accreditation process that will help you prepare for, respond to, and recover from bio risks to assure staff and guests that your business has a strategic cleaning, disinfection and infection-prevention program in place to keep them healthy and safe.

Tackling the Pathogens of Today and Tomorrow

When it comes to implementing new or revised cleaning and hygiene procedures, communication is key to providing peace of mind to customers and employees. On top of discussing and showcasing cleanliness, business owners and managers must follow through and enforce enhanced cleaning procedures. Ultimately, it’s up to business leaders, in-house cleaning teams and outsourced cleaning service providers to hold each other accountable so that the infectious disease risks of today and tomorrow are effectively and efficiently managed.

The ISSA is a trade association for the cleaning industry worldwide, with a membership that includes more than 10,500 distributor, manufacturer, manufacturer representative, building service contractor, in-house service provider, residential cleaning, and associated service members. Brant Insero is ISSA’s director of education, training, certification and standards. With more than 15 years of professional training experience, he has instructed industry professionals within commercial cleaning, supply chain, telecommunications, retail and financial vertical markets.




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