disposable face mask

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The fact masks haven’t been made mandatory has created confusion and a lack of belief in their importance

A number of supermarkets, including Morrisons and Tesco, have said they will require shoppers to wear face masks in their stores. Along with other retailers following suit, this could be a useful step in reducing the spread of Covid-19. But how can supermarkets successfully encourage compliance, while minimising risk of customer confrontations?

The first step is to have clarity around the message. Unfortunately, early debates around facemasks and the fact they haven’t been made mandatory has created confusion and a lack of belief in the importance of masks among parts of the British public.

To create clarity, stores need to clearly state that masks are required to shop in the store, unless someone has medical exemptions. These should be prominent outside and inside the store and be written in clear, but non-judgemental language that focuses on the positive reasons why the supermarket has brought in the rule change. Extra information on why this policy has been introduced should also be made available online.

Staff or security should try to be empathetic, actively listen, and focus on why the supermarket has changed its rules. Challenging non-compliant customers too directly could risk escalation and also backfire long term as people whose strongly held beliefs are challenged directly can often double down on them, believing them more strongly.

The next step is to make it easy for everyone to wear a face mask. Firstly, this means initially offering free masks to anyone who doesn’t have one. This allows people to still be able to shop, even if they have forgotten their mask.

Secondly, supermarkets should provide tips on how to remember a face mask, such as telling customers to keep spares in their glove compartment or in jacket pockets. Research with condom use showed that helping people to remember to have a condom on them was often more important than convincing them to use one.

Finally, stores and supermarkets should try to create a social norm around wearing face masks. Ensure staff are wearing masks, run ads with staff wearing masks and show images around the store of people wearing masks with reminders about the policy.

They need to make sure their public comms emphasises the high levels of existing compliance. Inherently, we are social creatures who will often change our behaviour to fit in with those around us. This is often more powerful than trying to rationally change someone’s opinion.

The above will help supermarkets effectively transition to getting the vast majority of people to wear masks. But even within this context, it’s worth noting some people won’t wear a mask.

Supermarkets are in a tough position in those cases, but they should maintain an empathetic tone and focus on being firm but conciliatory. And accept that universal enforcement may be impossible.