Column | How stores can improve their mask-up game
Whether you wear a mask depends on many factors, such as your level of education, gender, partisanship, or – and I admit, this is a smaller category – whether you play catcher for a Major League Baseball team. A contextual factor more common, though, is whether or not the places you shop require them, which can put retail and grocery workers in the difficult and unfamiliar position of enforcing public health rules.
Whatever you think about masks, we can all agree that customer service means something very different than it did in January. Now the clerk trained to believe the customer is always right is having to, for all practical effects, play cop when the customer is wrong, leading to some dicey situations. Recently, police were called when two guys got rough because they were told they had to wear masks in a Manhattan Trader Joe’s. That’s precisely why Home Depot doesn’t enforce its own mask mandate.
“It’s too dangerous to forcibly or physically deny entry,” a spokesperson told the Washington Post.
“Employees should not be expected to put their safety and their life on the line for the employer. That’s an unreasonable expectation,” the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said recently in calling for stores to hire security guards to enforce the rules.
There is an easier way. Instead of escalating conflict with armed security guards, businesses can leverage insights from behavioral science to encourage customers to wear masks. To do that, we need to break down what we’re being asked to do in two buckets: first, knowing about the mask requirement before we enter the store, and second, actually doing so inside the store.
The tried-and-true behavioral science advice for getting people to put the mask on in the first place is to appeal to our identity, or sense of self and duty to others, which is tricky for the reasons explained above. The good news is that businesses can appeal to our identities as loyal shoppers and advocates as a loyalist of a brand. Instead of “You must wear a mask,” it’s “Trader Joe’s shoppers wear masks!”
Another proven tactic is to use humor to diffuse tension. Go on social media for any length of time and you’ll see signs from small businesses already using this gambit, such as the business that printed a notice allowing customers to enter without masks if they had their temperature checked, and wouldn’t you know it, they were all out of oral thermometers!
Once inside the store, things get a little trickier. I don’t know about you, but it took me months before I stopped adjusting the mask. To help us feel normal wearing masks, businesses can do what they are already doing to encourage social distancing – place physical reminders everywhere.
And we’re not talking scolding signs reminding us “Thou Shalt Wear a Mask!” Just as stores tape markers on the floor 6 feet apart and all employees wear masks to normalize this behavior, businesses could leverage in-store design. Think of all the in-store marketing materials you see now of models. Now, imagine if all those models were masked. That would send a cue to your brain that wearing a mask was not just normal, but perhaps even desired, something to be emulated.
Finally, we need to be constantly reminded that we wear masks most of all to protect the frontline workers doing the essential work, often for low wages. Their jobs expose them to a deadly pandemic every day they go to work so you can get what you need whether it’s in an ER, a grocery store, or even a coffee shop. We wear a mask so they don’t die because they rang up your Honey Nut Cheerios.
For all that divides us – and masks have certainly become talismans of division – this pandemic unites us. Regardless of whether we think it’s a hoax or a plague, we’re all dealing with it one way or another. And it’s reminding us that we’re all in this together that will ultimately be the thing that gets us through it, one trip to Trader Joe’s at a time.
(Lilly Kofler is the Vice President of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.)