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Rough Reality for Malls and Department Stores: Shoppers Still Feel Unsafe to Return

Department stores and apparel retailers unfortunately may have more bad news coming their way even if physical stores start opening again.

As states across the U.S. consider the alternatives on how to best reopen stores, shoppers are least confident about reentering malls, with only 33 percent of respondents saying they would feel safe shopping in these locations, according to a survey from First Insight. What’s more, just 37 percent say they would feel safe shopping in a department store.

Considering many malls and the department stores within them already have seen traffic declines in recent years well before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, this is not a good sign for these businesses as they attempt to rebound.

Compare those numbers to the 54 percent of shoppers saying they would feel safe shopping in grocery stores, and 50 percent that harbor the same sentiment about drug stores, and it is clear that there are significantly different degrees of comfort within different store environments and formats.

Forty-five percent of consumers would feel safe shopping at big-box retailers, and 43 percent said the same for shopping at local small businesses and warehouse clubs, respectively.

The survey also analyzed shopping habits of men and women, finding that men feel much safer overall than women going back in-store. The largest disconnect is within shopping malls, where 41 percent of men would feel safe but only 24 percent of women would. The gap in perceived department store safety leans 43 percent men to 31 percent women.

While 58 percent of men feel safe shopping at a grocery store, just 49 percent of women feel the same. Similarly, 49 percent of men surveyed feel safe shopping at big-box retailers, versus 43 percent of women, the smallest percentage difference. More men (47 percent) also feel safer than women (39 percent) shopping at local small businesses.

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“As retail visits expand past essential retail like grocery and drug stores, other retailers, and malls in particular, need to be thinking of ways to inspire a sense of safety for consumers, and it will need to go beyond offering gloves and masks at the door,” said Greg Petro, CEO of First Insight.

When it comes to distributing gloves and masks, shoppers mostly aren’t interested in the offer. Eighty percent of shoppers prefer to use their own face masks and 70 percent prefer to tote their own gloves in lieu of donning personal product equipment provided by the retailer when shopping in-store.

Additionally, Custom Protection Services, a provider of tailored security and protection services, recently launched a frontline COVID-19 screening solution for store employees. The company deploys COVID-19 screening teams to retailers, which will consist of three team members: one officer performing the test, another officer recording the results and a team leader directing and overseeing the process. The testing is designed to be set up in just about any environment, and the company is actively contacting local businesses such including retail stores to introduce this service.

As retailers mull over new safety options for consumers and employees alike, Amazon has taken steps to improve the safety and confidence of its employees, recently implementing thermal cameras at its operations facilities to screen workers for fevers, a common coronavirus symptom. The cameras are designed to measure how much heat people emit relative to their surroundings. They require less time and contact than forehead thermometers, earlier adopted by Amazon. Thermal cameras will also replace thermometers at worker entrances to many of Amazon’s Whole Foods stores.

By using cameras, Amazon is exploring methods to contain the virus’ spread without shuttering warehouses essential to its operation. Before other retailers open their stores, they may think of cameras as a legitimate option to ensuring the safety of their shoppers and alleviate some stress they may have upon entering a store.

In general, worry about the coronavirus is subsiding slightly, decreasing for the first time since February. While 87 percent of consumers said they were worried on April 3, that number dipped to 82 percent on April 20.

It appears the impact of coronavirus on consumer purchase decisions also ticked down slightly as consumers have gotten more used to their surrounding environment. On April 20, 80 percent of shoppers said coronavirus has impacted their purchase decisions somewhat or significantly, down from the 89 percent that said it at the time of the last survey on April 3.

The new findings were revealed as part of First Insight’s ongoing series of consumer sentiment studies titled, “The Impact of Coronavirus on Consumer Purchase Decisions and Behaviors.” Now publishing the fourth study in the series, the company has been tracking consumer data since February 28, fielding additional studies on March 17, April 3, and April 20.