ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Over the past few months, grocery stores have become as strongly associated with plexiglass and face masks as they are with consumer products, like beverages and packaged foods. According to GroceryDive.com, what might have turned off customers in earlier times—limited occupancy, social distancing and limited self-serve options—are becoming part of the grocery industry’s new focus on sanitation and safety during the pandemic. And those in-store enhancements are sending messages to consumers about the retailers’ commitment to safety.
Grocers that can find the right balance between emphasizing safety and providing a reliable supply of essential goods could earn the long-term trust of edgy consumers whose priorities have changed swiftly and dramatically.
“It’s a mindset shift,” said Jordan Berke, a former Walmart executive who now runs Tomorrow Retail Consulting. “Cleanliness has moved from a compliance responsibility to something that is part of the customer experience.”
Today, shoppers are paying close attention to cleanliness when they visit stores, research shows. In fact, 29% of consumers would stop patronizing a retailer if they knew it did not have health and safety measures in place, according to a survey conducted in early July by Ipsos, a market research company.
Supermarket planners are paying close attention to the subtle signs that can indicate to consumers that a store is safe, according to Kevin Kelley, co-founder and principal of Shook Kelley, an architecture and design firm that help grocers build stores. “He who tilts the scales wins, so we have to figure out innovative ways to convince the customer to come to the store. We have to make that risk reduction issue not seem as difficult as it does on the news,” Kelley told GroceryDive.com.
For the past several decades, grocery stores have been focused on presenting an image built around safety, according to Kelley. “Stores literally picked their colors, material and layouts based on cleanliness," he said. "They succeeded at creating a super clean [environment], but it came off as clinical and sterile."
That changed when grocers like Whole Foods discovered that shoppers loved feeling like they were close to where their food came from and created farmers-market-like atmospheres in their stores. Now, concerns over COVID-19 are causing stores to return to their former way of thinking, he said.
With that in mind, store designers must balance their efforts to create the safest possible environment for shoppers with the ingrained tendency of people to want to see for themselves what employees are doing, and to draw conclusions from the evidence that’s in front of them, he explained.
That could cause stores to place food-preparation counters where customers can see them instead of in backrooms where it’s easier to control conditions. Even odors can signal to consumers that a supermarket is clean and places a priority on sanitation.
Stores can start baking cleanliness into their images more immediately by drawing people’s attention to sanitization practices instead of handling them behind the scenes, as they have typically done, said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at Publicis, an advertising firm.
For example, letting shoppers see an employee cleaning shopping carts as they walk into the store can be a powerful way of communicating a store’s commitment to sanitizing surfaces, Goldberg said. As disinfecting technology for retail spaces evolves, stores are likely to install automated sanitizing equipment in conspicuous places like shelves and freezers so shoppers can see it in action, he added.
Machines that can automatically handle certain sanitation functions in retail and other high-traffic environments are already available. Walmart has arranged to use an artificial intelligence platform it makes to control a fleet of autonomous commercial floor-scrubbing machines. In April, Fourth Avenue Supermarket, a grocery chain in Alabama, announced it is using cart-sanitizing machines from Sanitizit at its five stores.
Goldberg pointed to the decision by many grocers early on in the pandemic to set aside certain shopping hours for customers who are older or have compromised immune systems as another example of how promoting safety can perform a powerful marketing function with potentially long-term benefits.
Goldberg and Berke said it would not be surprising if grocers use their emphasis on public-facing cleanliness routines to strike partnerships with makers of cleaning supplies and equipment.
NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.