The new vaccination rules are a highly politicised issue, with brands coming out vocally on either side of the fence. Rashays Restaurants founder Rami Ykmour has taken the decision to avoid opening until everyone can dine, which is currently slated to be the case from 1 December in NSW. ABC reporting has found this isn’t an uncommon choice for small businesses.
Country Road’s new CEO Raju Vuppalapati shared his concerns around making sure only vaccinated customers come through the door, saying he did not want 17-year-old casual store workers to have the responsibility of dealing with unvaccinated customers insisting on their right to shop.
These are valid concerns, and ones all retailers are grappling with. The government hasn’t made the issue any clearer, it has been relatively vague on how retailers should enforce and navigate the post-lockdown regulations.
A recent poll on media and marketing website Mumbrella asked the audience: “Should brands get involved in promoting Covid-19 vaccinations?”. The results were as follows: ‘Yes’ 58.05 per cent; ‘Unsure – it’s more complicated than a yes or no’ 19.51 per cent; and ‘No’ 22.44 per cent.
I was surprised there weren’t more votes in the middle, since businesses are still practising caution, given the unknowns around indemnity, human resources issues and discrimination when it comes to pushing for vaccination. However, it makes sense that brands would pit themselves with the majority, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the majority are choosing to get vaccinated.
Unfortunately, it’s a lose-lose situation. Whichever path you choose, some customers are going to be upset about it. As the country continues to open up, there is a wide range of reactions and stances that retailers should get prepared for, including:
‘I am vaccinated, and I’m uncomfortable that you welcome unvaccinated customers. I don’t feel safe with the potentially increased exposure to the virus.’
‘You are not taking a bold enough stance on the issue. I need you to reassure me that you are taking a firm stance so I feel safe enough to visit your store.’
‘I have loved ones who have lost their lives to Covid-19 and this isn’t a joke. You could be using your influence to help here by encouraging customers to get vaccinated.’
‘I’m pregnant, so I’m waiting until I give birth to get the vaccine. Can I get an exemption?’
‘I have concerns about the vaccine, but that shouldn’t be your concern. You can’t stop me from coming into your store – what are you going to do about it?’
‘It’s my body, my choice. Why won’t you let me shop in your store? Your competitor down the road let me in, why won’t you?’
When faced with such a wide variety of potential responses and criticisms, retailers must go beyond short-termism and consider the long-term brand damage that can occur if they make the wrong move. If you’re lax on vaccination checks and then face a serious outbreak of Covid-19 in your store, it could do serious long-term damage to your brand, as you would be seen as putting profit before people. Similarly, if you take the Rashays route and put yourself in the ‘all are welcome together’ camp, you risk alienating a huge majority of the vaccinated population.
Stick to your brand values
Obviously, staff and customer safety should be any retailer’s most pressing concern, but brand safety and customer loyalty are two other key issues to consider here. Customer loyalty doesn’t just come from a great product or service that your customers love. A strong sense of customer loyalty also comes from having a brand that people have a close affinity for or connection with. To get there, brands must have a clearly defined set of values and stick to them consistently.
If you already have a chosen set of brand values, apply them to the vaccination issue. What does your ideal customer think about this issue? What would they expect from your brand, knowing what they already do about your brand’s values? Any decision you make should align with these existing values and make complete sense in the context of your brand.
Once you’ve decided which stance to take, communicate it in a way that sounds considered, careful, and reasoned. You can have short, sharp, shiny, bold messaging, but you must back it up with something more detailed and thorough.
Your messaging should explain exactly what you’re doing about safety and whether you’re prepared to consider exceptions. Who can customers speak to if they believe they have a legitimate exception? What is your process for tackling those issues and responding to those customers?
Whatever stance you take, make it clear that you understand why it’s necessary and that you’re not, for example, just toeing the party line for the sake of it. Explain your decision clearly and make sure to outline the steps you took to get there. Customers are far more likely to be understanding if you can provide them with logical, reasoned answers to their concerns.
Another great option is to provide customers with alternative ways to shop that don’t rely on physically browsing in-store. Click-and-collect and online ordering have been a lockdown staple for many retailers, so consider ways to offer these services.
What about a shopping concierge or personal-shopper service that customers can buy? Different shopping hours for different levels of concern? You can be creative, as long as you consider safety and demonstrate that you understand your customers’ various circumstances in the pandemic. This way, you can prove that you’ve thought about their experience while remaining within government health guidelines.
Remember, we’re all human
Before the pandemic, how many of us discussed vaccine brands with our friends? How many of us know all the brand names, dosages and efficacy statistics of the many, many vaccines we’ve already taken throughout our lives? The pain and anxiety of the Covid-19 pandemic have turned what should be a routine health issue into a front-and-centre, mainstream concern.
This topic is hugely sensitive for everyone, whatever stance you take. Vaccinations have become a highly polarised political issue and any strong messaging has the potential to become a news story in itself.
After all, this isn’t just about a vaccination. This is about our concerns and anxieties around Covid. There is a lot of fear floating around: fear of catching Covid, fear of being kicked out or isolated from retailers, fear of vaccine side-effects, fear of upsetting people, fear of re-entry into the real world. Change, frustration, isolation, reaching a boiling point after being stuck at home for several months, losing jobs, losing loved ones – it all adds up.
As always, the best solution is to speak to people like they’re human. For example, ‘We want what you want. We want safety and the ability to live our lives while caring for our impact on others. We’re working this situation out just like you.
‘For this reason, we have chosen to (insert your chosen safety precautions). If you have concerns, you can shop online or click-and-collect. We will be quick to communicate any changes with you, and are doing all we can to make things as safe and comfortable as possible for our staff and customers.’
If you show understanding and provide alternatives that work for everyone, opening up is going to be much more bearable for retailers, staff, and customers.