As one of the few places where people of all ages, occupations and health statuses need to be able to access, grocery retailers in particular had to adapt very quickly right from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure they were meeting responsibilities to keep customers safe, whilst still keeping the nation fed. Supermarkets and convenience stores were amongst the first places where people were legally required to wear face coverings, rules that were put in place to keep both customers & staff safe. However, the speed with which these rules needed to be implemented meant some questions went unanswered – such as who was responsible for enforcing them?

Even before the pandemic, abuse of retail staff was a growing concern with a 9% rise in cases compared to the previous year; in their campaigning for action on this problem, Usdaw repeatedly make the point that shop workers are expected to enforce laws, including those around age-restricted products. There was concern that rules on face-coverings would be another potential cause of conflict for shop workers to have to handle, and evidence to suggest the cases of shop worker abuse had doubled during the pandemic, so one way to reduce risk could be to take similar measures as shops already do with Challenge 25 policies.

These are the policies that we think would help:

Communicate rules as early as possible: Use posters in different locations to make customers aware of the policy that is being operated. For Challenge 25 policies, this is often in the aisles where age-restricted goods are sold, but in the case of face coverings it could be more effective to do so even sooner; in the car park and outside the main entrance to the store.

Communicate consistently: If there is ambiguity or inconsistency within the rules, people may be more frustrated if they are confronted about it. In the case of face coverings, make sure exemption reminders are communicated as well, partly to prevent customers who are exempt from being confronted by other customers, which could lead to another type of conflict that shop workers have to resolve otherwise. Reminders over tannoy announcements should be consistent with this too.

Posters by checkouts: Having posters in the areas where staff & customers interact should encourage any customers not wearing a mask to put one on. If not, and the staff member chooses to challenge them on it, they can refer to the poster to give them more authority and demonstrate that it they are simply doing their job.

Training & internal communication: It should be clear to staff what they are & aren't expected to do. In the case of Challenge 25, this might be information regarding what counts as ID and what does not (such as car keys or an access card for work), and in the case of face coverings this may be on which reasons someone may be exempt from the rules.

Age-estimation: Guessing someone’s age is even harder when someone is wearing a mask, but the same guidance still applies that it would with any Challenge 25 policy – if there is any doubt that someone looks old enough to buy the product, ask them for ID. Servers are allowed to ask customers to remove their face covering in order to verify the ID belongs to them - but they may need reminding of this.

The retail industry has faced so many hurdles and made many adaptations for the sake of the nation over the last 18 months. Let us take this opportunity to thank all retail staff for their hard work and continued commitment to keeping us all safe!