Walmart, Target and Lowe’s escalate social distancing efforts

Mike Troy
Editorial Director
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Aldi reminds shoppers to maintain a safe distance from other shoppers, but doesn't restrict the number of shoppers it allows in stores.

Well-intentioned retailers’ aggressive new social distancing measures face numerous execution challenges due to store layouts and shopper behavior.

Since mid-March, the retail industry has steadily escalated efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. There has been a drip, drip, drip of ever more rigorous measures and suggestions directed at shoppers to behave a certain way. The latest wave of measures from most retailers involve steps to ensure better compliance with public health officials social distancing recommendation to maintain a six foot gap from others.

In reality, this is virtually impossible in most retail stores, especially those operated by food and consumable retailers, where aisle widths were based on shopper traffic and service level expectations, not infectious disease mitigation. To improve the odds of shoppers maintaining an appropriate distance, one common approach has been to regulate the number of shoppers allowed in a store at any given time. Walmart, Target, The Home Depot, Trader Joe’s and countless others are doing this. These efforts are aided somewhat by the fact that after a month of stock up behavior shopper traffic has lessened.

Increasingly, retailers are recognizing that the weak link in their efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 is the configuration of stores. Even in retailers whose aisle widths are larger than average it is impossible for shoppers who meet one another in an aisle to maintain a six foot gap. As a result, one-way traffic patterns are gaining acceptance. Walmart said recently it began instituting one-way movement through aisles in an unspecified number of stores, using floor markers and direction from associates. Kroger is also reportedly testing a one way traffic flow in select stores.

“We expect this to help more customers avoid coming into close contact with others as they shop,” said Dacona Smith, EVP and COO for Walmart U.S. “Starting Saturday, we will limit the number of customers who can be in a store at once. Stores will now allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet at a given time, roughly 20% of a store’s capacity.”

Target also took a similar action, implementing a traffic regulation processes other retailers such as Costco took weeks earlier.

For many retailers, efforts focus largely on social distancing awareness through signing and strips of tape or signs on the floor directing shoppers where to stand, which may or may not be heeded by shoppers. To get a sense of how these efforts are being executed and how shoppers are reacting, Retail Leader set out with an N-95 mask firmly in place and wearing latex gloves to observe the following in the greater Tampa Bay area:

  • The Home Depot was throttling traffic into a store in Zephyrhills, Fla., on Saturday and had closed the entrance to its garden center to ensure social distancing inside the building. Meanwhile, about 50 people were bunched up in line to enter the store and only a few wore masks and gloves, defeating the intention of social distancing measures inside.
  • Lowe’s didn’t close its garden center entrance, but there was plenty of tape and signs on the floor directing people where to stand during checkout, after shoppers passed within a few feet of one another in aisles filled with merchandise.
  • An Aldi store was filled with hundreds of small signs on cooler doors, taped to the floor and in aisles encouraging shoppers to maintain their distance. The store’s aisles, while wider than those typically found in a Publix, Walgreens or CVS, still aren’t wide enough to maintain a six foot gap when meeting an oncoming shopper.
  • Winn-Dixie shows shoppers where to stand with a big red dot on the floor when checking out with a cashier seated behind a window which offers a degree of protection. Meanwhile, the majority of shoppers and employees in the store were unprotected and seemingly oblvious to maintaning a six food spread from one another.
  • Publix has ample signage in multiple well-stocked stores visited and windows at checkout, but as is the case at other retailers social distancing and protection from others remains a largely voluntary exercise for customers.