Maintaining social distancing inside retail stores during the COVID-19 pandemic has become a daily source of contention between retail workers and customers.
Yet this distance is more than a safety regulation to front-line retail workers. Inside the store, this two-metre space has become a sign of respect and an acknowledgment of their humanity.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2020, and as part of ongoing research, we’ve been interviewing retail workers and customers in North America, asking them about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected retail stores, employees and customers.
Social Distancing Patterns
One common story we kept hearing was how many customers disregard social distancing when in the vicinity of store employees.
Here are some comments from retail workers: “One thing that I found was quite interesting was when there’s recommendations for social distancing or physical distancing, you can see that customers would keep distance between them and other customers, but then they would disregard any sort of distance from staff member and employees.”
“They get right up next to me, they’re showing me their phone, they’re handing me their stuff.… They don’t seem to respect us as employees; that we need our distance as well.”
“It’s like they don’t see you as a person, they see you as a part of the store so they can just interact with you as they normally would. I’ve had customers touch me. I’ve had customers come face-to-face with me. … It gets really tiresome having to keep backing away and they keep coming close to you. You ask them to stay back and they just ignore it. It makes you feel like you’re not a person like they don’t see you as a human being. They see you as part of the store.”
Instacart Personal Shoppers
One Costco worker complained that this isn’t just a problem with regular customers, but also with shoppers for the Instacart personal shopping service:
“Instacart will come and they have their list of what they have to shop for, but they want to get in and they want to get out as quick as possible. So, they approach a staff member and they have it on their phone, and they’ll put it right in your face like ‘Where’s this? Where’s this?’”
While she sympathises with Instacart shoppers who need to fulfill as many orders as they can, she calls their attitude towards store workers disrespectful and “awful.”
“A lot of these Instacart people are people that have lost jobs due to COVID and this Instacart is kind of what they’re supplementing their income for, right? So, you can’t really blame them. But at the same time, they’re a pain because they’re creating some of this anarchy that goes on during your shift.”
When asked about whether she feels safe or not at work, one of the interviewees nearly cried. She said:
“Yes, we have to care about the safety of our customers and those who come to our stores, but we also have to care for us.”
While many of the interviewed retail workers expressed gratitude for being able to continue working when so many are out of work, they highlighted the increased stress in their work lives.
One of those major stressors is maintaining social distance with their customers during working hours. They also expressed concern about the limited compassion being shown by some of the customers.
In the midst of the holiday shopping season, when many shoppers are flocking to shopping malls outside of lockdown zones, we need to keep in mind that retail workers have all the same concerns about contracting COVID-19 as we do.
So whenever you enter a store, whether it’s a big box chain like Costco or Walmart or a small independent business, remember to “keep your distance.” It’s an important show of respect and compassion for the jobs retail workers do and the risks they face every day.