With U.S. COVID-19 cases and deaths rising at a staggering rate, over the past two weeks the nation has responded with a significant uptick in state, local and national retailers such as Walmart, Target and Kroger requiring customers to wear masks in-stores—a move that IGA CEO John Ross says will ultimately go a long way to help retailers, especially independent grocers, who have considered mask policies in their own stores. “It all comes down to public perception,” he says. “If some of the world’s largest retailers are requiring masks for customers, it’s much easier for a smaller retailer to enforce a mask policy in their store because a precedent has been set.”
But why is there still such controversy over wearing masks when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released reports that facial coverings prevent the spread of COVID-19?
“Listen, I get it. Masks fog up your glasses, they make it hard to breathe, and they’re a huge challenge when it comes to giving and receiving good customer service,” Ross says. “When you put people behind a wall of 2-inch plexiglass and then add a piece of fabric to cover most of their faces, communication is hard. But we know from our experiences in China and here in the U.S. that masks are a critical component for slowing the spread of the virus, and that makes them essential to the way we do business in the new normal.
“The problem arises when you have a shopper who believes, for whatever reason, that they shouldn’t have to wear a mask and then that puts an hourly associate into conflict with their customer,” Ross continues. “Obviously we’re not used to telling our customers how to dress in our stores.”
So what’s a retailer to do if a customer refuses to abide by a mask policy while shopping in-store? Consider these tips from IGA retailers across the country.
Use Gentle Reminders
It’s important to keep in mind that shoppers who enter your store without a mask aren’t necessarily committing an act of aggression. The shopper may have a legitimate ADA-approved reason for not wearing a mask, which means you as a retailer are required by law to provide them with equal access to the store.
Or, it could be a simple case of forgetfulness. Wearing a mask is now second nature for those who are in the public daily. “It’s almost like going out without your pants on these days,” Kim Brackett of Brackett's Market IGA says. But shoppers who aren’t a part of the essential workforce sometimes forget.
According to Brackett, a subtle reminder can be all it takes. “Tap your mask. It’s just a little sign to remind people,” she says.
Retailers, including Harvest Market IGA, have also been posting photos of employees wearing masks on their social media accounts, which can help normalize mask wearing and demonstrate to shoppers that you have a commitment to safety—before they even enter the store.
Hand Out Supplies at the Door
For the few people who need a mask in the moment, it pays to have extras on hand. Thanks to local donations and masks sent from FEMA, Brackett’s Market has a supply of masks for those who forget. PriceLess IGA in Campbellsville, Ky., has a similar policy, offering a free mask to customers who come in without one.
Be Available to Communicate With Shoppers and Back Up Employees
When Mendocino County first mandated that customers wear masks in the store, Jennifer Bosma, co-owner of Harvest Market IGA, stood out front to handle any potential angry customers—saving her hourly workers from potential clashes.
Brackett has a similar philosophy about handling complaints. While she says it’s important to understand that everyone comes from a different place, she doesn’t tolerate customers being rude to her employees. “If you have a problem, come talk to me,” Brackett tells customers. “I’m at risk too, and I’m here every single day. We front-line grocery workers, we want it to be safe in here, we’re here five days a week. We don’t want to put ourselves at risk.”
When McKim's IGA Store Manager Larry Williams let shoppers know his store would follow a statewide mandate requiring shoppers to wear masks, response was mostly positive—with a few very strong objections mixed in. Williams used the store’s social media account—and his personal one—to offer more lengthy reasoning on requiring masks at the Mount Vernon, Ind., store.
“There have been a lot of comments on my recent post about requiring face masks starting next week. Most have been positive, and I appreciate that,” says Williams. “There have been a few negative comments and I respect those and the right to make them. One that stands out to me is, ‘This is a mandate, not a law, and I’m not going to follow it.’ ”
“In order to operate a retail business in Indiana, we must apply for and be issued many licenses and or operating permits from the state. ... In order to be approved for these permits, a retailer must agree to abide by many rules and regulations that may be issued from time to time,” wrote Williams. “These include but are not limited to executive orders issued by the governor. In the case of the order to wear masks in public places effective July 27, for us, it is to be treated as a law and adhered to.
"Please understand, this order will be enforced uniformly. Failure to do so could result in the suspension or loss of any or all of our operating permits and this is not acceptable to us under any circumstances. I understand this decision is frustrating to some, but again, we will adhere to the order until the order is lifted and the current COVID crisis is under control. Please do not take out your frustrations on our cashiers and employees. Their jobs are already stressful enough, especially the past few months, and they have absolutely no say in this decision.
"I know our customers, and I have every confidence that most of you will understand and cooperate. I also know that there are a few who will 'push the envelope.' Please don’t.
"If everyone works together and cooperates, we will get thru this.”
“Every customer has a different level of comfort,” says Pat Ptacek, whose family owns Ptacek’s IGA in Prescott, Wis. “No matter what you do, you’re going to be wrong in some people’s eyes.”
But Ptacek has dampened the mask debate by giving customers who refuse to wear masks another way to shop.
A year ago the family store started using the curbside delivery app Freshop, something the kids in the family had to convince their dad Mike was a good idea.
“He said, ‘What in the hell? People aren’t buying groceries online.’ I said, ‘Dad, I don’t buy anything in a store anymore,’ ” Ptacek says. “Fast-forward nine months from now and it’s COVID-19, and we’re one of the few independents that are ahead of the curve on that.”
The Freshop curbside delivery option lets people stay in their cars and have their groceries dropped off. “By having this we have a nice alternative for people that says, ‘I understand you don’t like our preparedness in this aspect; please use curbside pickup.’ ” Ptacek says. “It 10% keeps my employees safer.” It also provides a safe and suitable solution for shoppers who can't wear a mask for medical or other reasons.
The Tide Will Turn
According to Brackett, who has been enforcing a statewide mask mandate since early July, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. While she's seen a wide array of responses—from total support to outright hostility—she says the tide is definitely turning.
“Even the people who gave me that attitude in the beginning are now wearing masks,” says Brackett. “If they don’t wear a mask then they’re the only ones without and that makes them feel uncomfortable. We’re seeing much better compliance because it’s the norm now.”
Michelle Lange is a contributing writer for IGA, the Independent Grocers Alliance, which gives hometown grocers the support of a nationally known brand to help meet the needs of their unique communities.