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Returning to Work for the Retail World Doesn’t Have to Be Dangerous

If life is a series of choices, workers today are facing a particularly big one. Should they or shouldn’t they return to the office, if asked? For many, there is little real choice. Some jobs require workers to be on-site, threat of illness or not. For workers who have to come into the office, the onus of responsibility to ensure individual safety here has largely shifted to the shoulders of the employer and the office manager. 

Office-based companies still have a number of options available to them to keep people safe. First of all, they can keep their employees remote, which is categorically the safest solution. They can choose to bring people back to the office in shifts, making it easier to track individual health and keep people safe in the event that someone in a given group got sick. And they can generally make a range of design adaptations, like cubicle dividers and closed-off common area spaces, to improve safety as well. 

But not all businesses have this opportunity. It’s easy for offices to choose to keep people remote, but what is a retail shop or restaurant to do? That kind of work often cannot get done without an in-person presence, so the playbook is limited compared to companies based out of offices, where the most important spaces and equipment are the cubicle and the computer. 

Non-office employers still have some of the typical options available to them. Their employees are often already scheduled in shifts, making that adaptation a freebie. Sanitation is automatically taken much more seriously in restaurants, for instance, than in offices, too. And some of the same design touches that are currently keeping office employees safe (if a little annoyed) are applicable too: plexiglass to separate shoppers and cashiers and markings to indicate safe distancing in line. Some stores have even introduced one-way aisles, although these have been met with mixed results. According to Maria Brous, director of communications for grocery store Publix, “While we have signage in our stores regarding one-way directional aisles, it may not resonate with every customer. Our store teams do a great job of reminding customers and sharing why we have made the adjustment to our aisles.” That represents the other big risk driver for retail as opposed to office real estate: visitors. 

While the average commercial building may receive relatively few guests over the course of a day, whether they are job applicants, vendors, partners, or clients, stores thrive on shoppers. According to the Food Industry Association (FMI), the over 38,000 American supermarkets sell a median of $455,777 per week as of 2018. FMI data also shows that the average sale per customer was $34.91 in 2018, meaning that on average, each American supermarket receives over 13,000 shoppers per week. While accurate numbers for weekly office visitors are hard to come by, the figure for supermarkets is certainly vastly greater. 

So for all the design adaptations and mask requirements that retail companies can try to implement, the prospect of working a retail job is inherently far more dangerous than jockeying a cubicle. The only solution is to get more creative with how to sell in the first place. Many grocery stores offer curbside pickup or delivery, but in most if not all cases, those same stores that are capable of filling pickup orders in mere hours are still inviting shoppers into the stores themselves. This works for people who choose to utilize the pickup option but for the workers and others who’re venturing into the store to shop, it doesn’t help much at all. One option coming from this angle would be to consider developing grocery stores that only offer curbside pickup. Such a store could save a lot of money on interior buildout and customer service staff, becoming the equivalent of a ghost kitchen for groceries. No indoor shoppers means drastically reduced parking needs, allowing owners to invest in much nicer pickup areas, with shelters for employees and loading areas. 

This is what grocery chain Kroger began piloting in March, with a pickup-only store in the Cincinnati area. As of the date of writing, in late July, Kroger’s site still refers to this store as a “Grocery Pickup Center.” It’s one thing to convert a functioning grocery store to the pickup-only modality, but planning one from day one as a pickup-only location could be even more beneficial for other grocers in the future. 

Another approach to the retail back-to-work comes from Apple, which has done the seemingly impossible by allowing retail store staff to work remotely. According to Deirde O’Brien, senior vice president of retail and people for Apple, “If your store is closed, please sign up for Retail at Home, please talk to your manager, because we really need to make sure that we shift our teams to greet our customers remotely in this time. We may need to be working remotely for some period of time.” Under this arrangement, Apple allows customers to schedule consultative sessions with store employees to answer questions and review needs. Although the company began this initiative long before the outbreak, the strategy is a novel way to redirect in-store employees to a new, safer way of working in light of global disruption. 

How can other stores begin to apply this approach down the road? By considering the Apple and Kroger examples, it would seem that many traditional retail staff could see their roles converted into either a customer support/sales function or a logistics/order fulfilling one. In turn, new stores and others that are already operational could see their aisles of rows and finishes streamlined, so that they could be converted into 100 percent distribution spaces if the need arises. 

Right now, the debate is still raging about how offices can be reopened, but for retail spaces facing massive visitation every day, there is not the same luxury of choice. Retailers (and by extension the property companies that support them) have to find ways to shift operations while minimizing risk. While there might not be a choice of whether to bring retail employees back or not, there are still a lot of smart decisions that can be made about how to provide them with the highest level of safety without diminishing the in-person experience that gives brick and mortar its advantage over online shopping.

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