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As newer, more contagious variants of COVID-19 emerge, Americans' emotions and fears are at new peaks, leading to an increase in public confrontations. With changing store policies, differing political views, and overall frustration of the ongoing pandemic, it’s difficult for many people to be their best right now, especially at the one place they’re all visiting—the grocery store.
“We are in a time of heightened tensions and emotions,” says Mercedes Roling, senior consultant at Root Inc., who partnered with FMI on the De-Escalate: Tools for Conflict Management in the Grocery Store webinar. “We have customers in stores who are projecting pent-up feelings and emotions in unexpected and very elevated ways.”
And retailers are seeing those pent-up feelings come out at their employees. 76 percent of the attendees of that webinar said they were most concerned with customer to employee conflict, as they have experienced issues with masks (both the need to wear them and how to wear them properly, i.e. over the mouth and nose), abusive language, anger about out-of-stocks or product limits, and more.
“For the safety of our employees, the safety of our customers, and the integrity of our brands, we really want to avoid scenes,” Roling says. To reduce conflicts between customers and employees, retailers must practice and teach their employees effective conflict prevention and resolution techniques. Keep reading for de-escalation tips for the most common conflict scenarios in grocery retail.
“The best way to de-escalate is to proactively reduce the chances of escalation,” says Aaron Epting, partner at Root Inc. To reduce the chance of an emotional outburst from a customer, it’s important to set expectations before they enter the store.
Update your website and social media channels with new policies and safety guidelines, like mask requirements, store capacity, product limits, at-risk population hours, etc.
Engage with customer comments and answer questions in a timely manner. Emails, social media comments, and blog comments should all be monitored several times a day to ensure timely responses, which will keep conflicts off of your online presence.
Update your digital ad and promotions to reflect out-of-stocks. This practice ensures shoppers don't arrive expecting an advertised product that is out of stock.
By communicating this information in advance online, more in-store shoppers will be prepared for the changes and there will be fewer surprises.
Start at the entrance. The shopper’s experience starts outside the store, so just as you set expectations about policies and safety guidelines on the website and on social media, you will want to post those policies and guidelines at the entrance to ensure in-person shoppers see them and know what to expect. “People want to go in and come out easily, safely, and quickly, so the best thing to do at the entrance is to be clear, succinct, and visual,” Roling says.
Reaffirm your message at the front of the store using IGA-branded signage, like these Hometown Proud Service and IGA Promise Signs.
IGA also has branded signs to communicate solo shopping recommendations, senior shopping hours, reusable bag policy updates, and more, which you can find here.
Use the intercom regularly to remind shoppers of the importance of following those guidelines. Be concise and polite with your messages. For example, repeat the following message once every 30 minutes. “Thank you for shopping at IGA. Your health and safety are important to us. Please wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart from others while in the store.”
Practice what you preach. Ensure employees are wearing masks and practicing social distancing to demonstrate the behavior you want shoppers to emulate. Roling says this tactic avoids giving shoppers ammunition to fight your policies by saying, “Your employee isn’t wearing a mask, so I won’t either.”
Since it's been nearly a year since the pandemic began and it's easy to lapse with so many safety measures to practice, ask your employees to freshen up on IGA's Minimum Safety Standards and double down on their diligence in practicing them.
Practice good customer service throughout the store. Train each employee on conveying kindness, helpfulness, and empathy. For example, Epting recommends placing friendly, outgoing associates in front to wipe down carts. Shoppers get to see safety precautions being followed while being greeted by a happy associate who immediately establishes a positive shopping experience.
Add the IGA Coca-Cola Institute's customer service online courses to your training plans for the upcoming month to ensure associates are up-to-date on the best ways to communicate and interact with shoppers.
While these preventative measures can be effective in reducing conflicts, they still will occur. Some shoppers won’t visit your website or social media pages for updates and may be upset by store policies, product availability, pricing, or other concerns. Some might simply be too exhausted and/or emotional to be respectful.
To best prepare your employees to address conflicts when they do occur, consider these solutions to common conflict scenarios from IGA National Retailer Advisory Board (NRAB) members.
There are many versions of this scenario, and retailers have seen them all. Start by giving the customer the benefit of the doubt: forgetting to put one on or having an ADA-approved reason for not wearing one.
Start with a subtle reminder, like Kim Brackett of Brackett's Market IGA in Bath, Maine suggests. “Tap your mask. It’s just a little sign to remind people,” she says. Jennifer Bosma of Harvest Market in Fort Bragg and Mendocino, California recommends, “Start with empathy, telling them, ‘We don’t like masks either, but we have to enforce the rules to keep our doors open and keep everyone safe.'”
At McMaken's IGA in Brookville, Ohio, managers will approach unmasked shoppers with a mask in a plastic bag and ask them to put it on, says Owner Bill Price. If the shopper indicates they have one of the ADA-approved reasons for not wearing it, the manager will explain that they need to wear a face shield, which they sell for $2.99.
In Spring 2020, price fluctuations on eggs, meat, and dairy riled up many shoppers who felt retailers were price gouging to make a buck. If a customer complains in-store or on social media about pricing, prepare employees to discuss the issue at hand.
Empathy and understanding can go a long way here, says IGA CEO John Ross. “Talk to your customer and look them in the eye. Say, 'Listen, I get it. We're here to help you feed your family and not spend a fortune doing it,'" he says. Remind them of your pricing policy—that your prices only go up if the vendor's costs do, which might help the shopper understand that the decision is made higher up on the food chain, so to speak.
Reminding the customer of your limitations should help. "Tell them we are doing our best, but some things are out of our control," says Price, like certain product availability. Price also recommends telling shoppers who are upset about product limits that you’re trying to make sure all customers have the opportunity to purchase the in-demand product.
As you can see from these three common scenarios, several approaches can be effective. Epting and Roling recommend using the LAST technique in every de-escalation interaction:
Listen: Listen to the shopper to understand their issue.
Apologize: Apologize without blaming others.
Solve: Offer a solution while emphasizing your store’s values. Offering multiple options can help frustrated customers feel like they have some control.
Thank: Finally, thank shoppers for working through the issue with you.
These four steps can help retailers and associates better manage conflicts when they do occur by helping the shopper feel heard and understood, see actionable steps toward a resolution, and feel valued as a customer.
Grocery retailers and associates have been stepping up in numerous ways throughout the pandemic, and while it's unfortunate that conflict resolution has become another must-have skill for the job, these tips can help your team prepare for unwanted behavior that may come their way.