FRIDAY 3 DEC 2021 2:24 PM


Following the introduction of new coronavirus prevention measures in England this week, supermarkets are struggling to communicate safety measures while also protecting employees from rising levels of abuse. While many have faced criticism for their comms approach, Iceland leads the way with a human strategy that puts employees at the heart of the brand.

Mask rules were reintroduced in England on Tuesday 30 November following rising concerns about the Omicron coronavirus variant. The government announced new guidance stating that face masks must be worn in shops, shopping centres, in transport hubs and on public transport.

For many retail stores communicating the new regulations meant putting up posters, reminding customers to wear a mask, at the store entrance. Tesco shared a short animated video communicating the new guidelines, with signposting for its customers to access further information on its website.

Morrisons and Sainsburys adopted a formal tone and created visual assets reminding customers to wear masks when in stores. Morrisons also encouraged customers to ask staff for a face covering if needed.

Sainsburys faced criticism as the only supermarket that clearly stated it would challenge unmasked customers upon entry. Simon Roberts, chief executive of Sainsburys said, “we will have greeters and security guards at the front of our supermarkets to support our colleagues as we help everyone get used to the new rules.”

While Waitrose did not make an isolated announcement, it took a more personalised comms approach by replying to a customer via twitter when asked if the supermarket could ‘guarantee a hassle-free shop.’ Waitrose addressed the customer by name and signed off with an individual employee name to ensure the response felt human and authentic.

Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, became the spokesperson for the supermarket brand, speaking publicly about the new measures on television, radio and his personal social media accounts. Walker said, “I won’t be asking store colleagues to police those who won’t wear a mask.” He explained the decision was a matter of employee safety after a survey from retail trade union, Usdaw, found that over 90% of retail staff have experienced verbal or physical abuse between August 2020 and 2021. This approach was well received by the public and both Walker and Iceland received praise for putting employee safety first.

Co-op, Asda, Aldi and Lidl opted not to publish its own announcement despite all being active on social media. Co-op has since followed in Iceland’s footsteps as Paul Gerrard, Co-op’s policy director, told Radio 5 Live that it did not expect staff to refuse service to customers not wearing masks. He said, “Every day, in the 2,600 Co-op shops, ten of my colleagues will be physically attacked. Five of them will be attacked with a weapon - it could be a syringe, it could be a knife, it could be a hammer - and that's not unusual to the Co-op.”

The British Retail Consortium has said that it is up to the police to enforce mask rules and retail employees should not be held responsible. In the run up to Christmas the UK’s supermarkets will work to balance the communication of its safety rules to comply with government rules while also keeping its employees safe and protecting the employer brand.

James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said “We will continue to urge stores to communicate the rules, but not to challenge those who refuse to abide by the rules.”