The Athlete’s Foot believes that it is a positive move for consumer sentiment and will benefit the industry.
“Customer feedback already is that the reduced risk of transmission builds a greater sense of confidence and will help in moving forward after such a turbulent 2020 – whether it be in retail, hospitality, or entertainment settings,” Steve Cohen, group general manager of Accent Group’s performance division, told Inside Retail.
The biggest challenge, Cohen said, will always be ensuring customers and employees adhere to the new regulations.
“We could all see from Melbourne’s experience that asking people to change their way of life in an [instant] is not an easy task. We all need to respect that fact that we are in this together and compliance from all sides only ensures we protect the vulnerable and keep our economy going.”
Despite recommendations around mask wearing since the pandemic began, Australian consumers have generally not adopted mask culture like some other countries have, Jana Bowden, associate professor at Macquarie University’s business school, pointed out.
In July, YouGov reported that only 20 per cent of the public were wearing coverings compared to mask adoption rates of 73 per cent in the US and 90 per cent in Singapore.
“The chequered advice from the WHO as well as our Federal and State Governments to not wear masks early in the pandemic, and the reversal of this advice over time has also added to public scepticism,” Bowden told Inside Retail.
While many consumers may not have chosen to wear a mask up to this point, most are understanding of the requirement. However, the rise of the “anti-masker” poses a threat to the safety of frontline retail staff.
There has been a steady stream of viral videos from around the world showing consumers using aggressive verbal and physical behaviour to intimidate workers that have asked them to wear a mask.
An anti-mask protest in Bondi earlier this week suggests that some Australian consumers also feel that their civil liberties are being infringed upon.
“This phenomenon is what we call psychological reactance. People like to feel in control and some will respond to threats to autonomy like new regulations with rejection by denying the existence of the threat,” Bowden said.
“We have seen in the protests some members of the public denying the need to wear masks and in-store we see this through displaying anger towards retail staff.”
Dean Salakas, CEO at The Party People, told Inside Retail that his team is prepared in the event of uncompromising customers.
“We have anticipated some backlash although we haven’t had any as yet. Staff have been briefed on how to handle people who refuse to wear a mask,” he said.
Last year customer aggression towards retail staff escalated, with some retailers reporting a 400 per cent increase in incidents to the National Retail Association (NRA).
Bowden said this has a massive impact on the “mental, emotional and physical welfare of retail staff” and has a productivity cost to businesses too.
Since the requirement was introduced on Monday, Accent Group has not experienced any major disputes from customers.
“From what we have seen in the last 24 hours most of our customers are understanding of the situation and we don’t see a widespread issue occurring,” Accent Group’s Steven Cohen said.
Where does the responsibility lie?
While retailers have a role to play in informing consumers about the requirements in their stores, many feel that it is not their duty to enforce.
“We certainly do not want our team members to feel like it is their responsibility to manage government policy, so we will be looking to landlords and the relevant authorities to help ensure customers entering centres are wearing masks,” Cohen said.
A stance that Bowden agrees with, stating that to place the burden of responsibility on frontline staff is “a recipe for conflict and confrontation”.
“Retailers need support to ensure that consumers conform to these requirements,” she said.
However, she said they do have a role to play in making sure that consumers are “alert, aware and proactive”.
Throughout the pandemic, retailers have introduced signage, social distancing symbols and sanitising stations to ensure that customers and staff can have a safe and comfortable shopping experience.
Bowden suggests retailers could be proactive and hand out masks to customers early on as a gesture of goodwill and to remind consumers that they have their best interests at heart.
“It’s really a matter of setting customer expectations about what will happen in-store and making sure all customers are on the same page. Sometimes the simplest solutions have the biggest impact,” she said.
Technology has played an important role in the introduction of Covid-safe systems globally.
Earlier this week, rideshare company Didi implemented AI technology on its driver platform across Greater Sydney to verify that its drivers are wearing face masks. Drivers are asked to take a selfie prior to accepting trips and face-detection technology verifies if they are wearing an appropriate face covering.
The Athlete’s Foot is using technology in busier stores to place customers in virtual queues and has also introduced an online booking system to manage store capacities. During the back-to-school period, the retailer will also be introducing small pop-up stores in select centres to extend fitting services beyond the shop front in a safe way.
When it comes to in-store communication and Covid-safe processes, Bowden said it’s about “striking a balance between educating customers to help them to make the best decisions for themselves, and designing the store experience itself to deliver on the safety promise.”
“The aim is to limit points of friction.”