Retail’s Front Line Workers Or Law Enforcers?

Customers in stores and supermarkets across England must wear facemasks again from Tuesday November 30.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a return to more stringent rules around mask-wearing as part of his government’s plan to minimise the spread of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant.

Fines for not complying are set at £200 for the first penalty, to be doubled with each offence up to a maximum of £6,400. 

Supermarkets are announcing their planned response to encourage shoppers to abide by the madatory rules.

Aldi was the first supermarket to address this issue with a clear announcement from CEO, Giles Hurley:

“The safety of our colleagues and customers is our number one priority. Following the latest Government announcement, wearing a face covering will be mandatory for everyone that shops at Aldi from Tuesday 30 November, except for those who have a medical exemption.”

Retailers have voiced concerns and highlighted that they cannot be expected to police the reintroduction of mask-wearing in stores due to the potential threat of abuse towards their staff.

Richard Walker, Managing Director of the Iceland supermarket chain took to Twitter to state that that whilst supportive of the change in mask policy, his colleagues at Iceland “…can’t be expected to police those who refuse”. He also took time to further praise colleagues at the store who have already stepped up throughout the pandemic : “They’ve (the staff) have been heroic during the pandemic, encouraging customers to feel confident in store…”

On the so-called ‘Freedom Day’ of July 19th the UK government lifted most of the restrictions but did urge Britons to keep wearing face masks in crowded, indoor spaces.


That said, the Prime Minister himself has been photographed without a mask at high profile events such as COP 26 in November, which took place in Glasgow, Scotland.

Boris Johnson said the new mask and testing measures would “buy us time in the face of this new variant”. However, implementing such mandatory rules will ultimately depend on the intervention of front-line store colleagues and will likely account reasons for a significant increase in reported abuse in stores.

A spokesperson from the Association of Convenience Stores stressed: “We know from previous lockdowns that reminding people about face coverings and social distancing is a big trigger for abuse and [store workers] are hesitant about challenging people.”

Usdaw, the shopworkers’ union presented research that highlights that 88% of its members had been verbally abused in the past year – up from 68% in 2019 – and 9% had been physically assaulted.

The challenges that retail has seen during the pandemic may also explain why the sector is also facing recruitment shortages.

Fran Webb, a specialist in retail recruitment at Reed said that “one reason people no longer want to work in retail is due to the long hours, low pay, and risk of being on the front line for Covid and job uncertainty.”

Both the retail and hospitality sectors saw a huge decline in jobs with restaurants and stores forced into closures during lockdown and then reopening with reduced capacity. The Office Of National Statistics revealed that 89,000 jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

The new rules come at a time when retail is already facing seismic challenges from supply chain to pricing pressure, all whilst trying to meet customer demand to make this Christmas ‘better’ than the last. Traditional bricks and mortar stores have the complex challenge of supporting colleagues and customers to feel safe and at the same time working to ensure strong returning footfall is returning for in-store transactions.

The Tycoon Herald