Even as New Zealand emerges as one of the few global success stories, managing to successfully eliminate COVID from our communities, challenges remain for retailers and business owners. One such challenge (and opportunity) is the potential impact of future outbreaks, and how this affects the customers shopping experience.
Following the second lockdown in Auckland, shoppers entered a retail environment with an increased push from health authorities to wear masks. By and large, retailers hesitated to offer a position on mask wearing and, without a clear government directive, consumers ultimately had the choice whether or not to wear a mask.
While this freedom may have benefits, research from The 2020 Vision Project, a study looking at how New Zealanders responded to COVID, has shown that it also unintentionally created uncertainty in the minds of shoppers. This uncertainty could influence people to stay away from stores, trial competitor offerings, or purchase via online channels, leading to long-term impacts on shopper behaviour.
Yet this is where retailers and businesses, already masters of shaping behaviour and culture, can learn from our first waves of lockdown and community transmission, as they scenario plan for potential future outbreaks. One aspect of these scenario plans is a position on mask wearing.
How Shoppers Felt About Breaking a Cultural Norm In Store
On the 3rd of August as Auckland prepared to move from Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 2.5, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern requested that “If you go to a shop, wear a mask. If you go to a mall, wear a mask. Basically, when you step out of your home we are asking you if you can please wear a mask. This is one of the key ways we can protect you.”
How did people respond to this request? Findings from The 2020 Vision Project demonstrated that New Zealanders were largely supportive, with a typical response from participants: “I really don’t mind wearing them … it’s not that hard to wear a mask for 20 minutes while you run into the supermarket”.
However, survey results obtained from survey research firm Dynata on behalf of The 2020 Vision Project found that in the midst of Auckland’s 2nd lockdown, only 45% claimed to always wear a mask in public spaces such as supermarkets. What stopped the other 55%?
Interviews conducted with New Zealand shoppers suggested one of the biggest barriers to wider compliance with mask wearing, and one impacting people’s instore shopping experience, was confusion over when and where masks should be worn—and concern over how mask-wearers are perceived by others in public. One person told us: “My theory is that the minute I want to shop … the mask should go on … but I look around at what others are doing”.
Without clear guidelines from government or retailers, and pushing against an entrenched cultural norm of not wearing masks, many customers simply tried to match the behaviour of others. This is despite being aware and supportive of the rationale for mask wearing.
This points to something that behavioural scientists have repeatedly demonstrated, the ability for social norms to override people’s intended behaviours.
Now that we know more about how customers have responded to this new behaviour, this is an opportunity that retailers can respond to, should COVID return. Retailers can put out subtle cues to help reaffirm and support consumers choices to wear masks, without expressly mandating it. Normalising mask wearing is likely the best balance of proactive neutrality and improving the customer experience, creating both real and perceived safety for customers.
How Retailers Can Create a Safe Customer Experience
Showing that a retailer is alongside its customers in a challenging time is a solid solution for making them feel understood and safe. In a new and complex environment, the fortunate news is that creating this feeling can be more easily, economically and quickly implemented than any of the larger adaptations stores have had to make recently.
These solutions could include:
- Provide clear signage framing mask wearing as a normal and pro-social action (“Thanks for joining the team of 5 million by wearing a mask!”)
- Reduce confusion on when to put masks on (e.g. a sign at the entrance stating, “now’s the time to put your mask on!”)
- Encourage employees to wear masks and to observe social distancing protocol, normalising the behaviour.
Potentially offering single use masks to customers who want to wear them, or charging a nominal sum; put a few masks on mannequins for humour
- Consider how marketing messages and social media images depict mask wearing and responsible behaviour.
- Train staff on how to navigate potentially heated exchanges or awkward conversations over mask wearing, social distancing and other protocol. Customers expect store staff to step in, so they don’t have to.
New Zealand businesses may have never experienced anything quite like COVID before and, hopefully, they never will again. But applying lessons already learnt and preparing for a range of future scenarios, including future outbreaks of COVID, is a prudent step which will support retailers that wish to survive and thrive.
Cole Armstrong is Director of behavioural insights agency NeuroSpot. NeuroSpot takes a scientific lens to consumer behaviour drawing from the worlds of neuroscience and behavioural economics, to help brands build better customer experiences across their channels.