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Retail business owners enforce guidelines for safety

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

As more Michigan retail business owners open their doors, some worry about the customers who are unwilling to follow guidelines created to keep people safe from the spread of COVID-19 while shopping.

The Michigan Retailers Association hosted three webinars this week to discuss how to deal with difficult customers as a way to make the new shopping experience not only safe, but enjoyable as well. More than 270 retailers participated in the webinar.

"Probably the number one complaint from retailers, members and nonmembers, is that they are very anxious about enforcing face mask rules with customers who don’t want to follow their guidelines," said Meegan Holland, spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association. "We’ve heard about instances where customers have sworn at store owners. Often they just roll their eyes and walk out, but we’re always very concerned that the situation could escalate.

Customers social distance at Time Warp.

"We’ve all heard of the incident with the security guard being killed in Flint, and we want to make sure that it never gets to that point again," she added. "We hired a firm that has a lot of law enforcement background and they’re doing a great job of teaching the business owners how to deal with belligerent customers and calm down the situation."

Rachel Lutz, a fourth-generation Detroit business owner who serves on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Workforce Development Board, participated in the first webinar held Monday. She described it as "a really helpful seminar on how to deal with challenging customers, especially when it comes to them refusing to wear a mask."

"They had experts talking about de-escalation techniques, which are helpful in everyday situations," she said. "I think it's sad that we're even having this discussion on how to protect our customers and our staff from potential violence. We're just trying to carry on our day-to-day business, and as if that wasn't challenging enough, now we have to strategize against physical and verbal abuse."

The owner of four Detroit women's apparel boutiques — the Peacock Room, and Yama (inside the Fisher Building), and the Peacock Room, and Frida (inside the Park Shelton) — Lutz is currently operating each by appointment only, but is well-aware of the difficulties being faced by some business owners who have opened their stores to walk-in customers.

"I'm in a very lucky position that our customers are amazing, very respectful and excited to shop with us, so I don't personally anticipate a lot of that. We are a destination store and our customers have been very supportive of us, and I hope that will continue with our mask policy. It's been disturbing to see other stories from other retailers.

"I think it's very important that other stores not be bullied by this very small percentage of shoppers who seem more interested in picking political arguments than shopping," she continued. "I don't think we should allow the few bullies out of the many, many respectful customers to dictate to us how we should write our safety policies. These policies for our stores is safety -- not politics."

On two separate occasions, Jason Waldron and Steve Heintz, owners of Time Warp Vintage in St. Clair Shores, said a couple customers refuse to wear a mask in their store, despite having a sign on the door stating their policy.

"We've had two run-ins with customers who didn't want to wear masks, and surprisingly, both had a mask in their hands," said Waldron. "We greeted them and said, 'We do require you wear your mask the whole time you're shopping.' They got belligerent. The first one was being aggressive and taking an aggressive stand, saying, 'Why? Why?,' over and over again, and then he stormed out.

"The second time," continued Waldron, "when we asked him (another customer) to please put the mask on, he looked at Steve and asked, 'Are you really that scared." Steve said, 'Yes.'

"Since then, the steps we took to make sure our staff feels safe are that we've put a bell on our entrance door, and our doors are locked when there's only one person working at a time, or when we have associates in the building. They then have to be buzzed in. That way if they don't have on a mask, we point to ours before opening the door. We've since had a couple that have come without wearing a mask, and they just decided not to come in, but they weren't mean. They understood."

So far, Andy Linn, who co-owns City Bird, and Nest, both in Detroit's Midtown area, with his sister Emily Linn, hasn't had any problems with customers not wanting to wear a mask while in his stores, which offer locally themed goods such as housewares, stationery and other items. 

"All customers must be wearing a mask. If they're not wearing a mask, we have free masks to offer anyone coming in the store," stated Linn. "If they're not able to wear one for medical reasons, we can make an exception, and we can (also) offer others curbside pick-up, or they can shop online."

Also, to help prevent the spread of the virus, Linn said, "We are doing a daily health screening for every staff member that includes taking temperatures, a rundown of common symptoms, and asking if they've recently been exposed to a COVID-19 patient. We've had many, many customers thank us for taking precautions. One other precaution is that we're limiting the number of customers in the store to no more than six at a time. Many feel it gives them more room to social distance and it makes them feel a lot safer."

Matthew Macchiarolo, who co-owns Town Peddler Antique and Craft Mall in Livonia with his wife Linda, said "the vast majority" of their customers wear a mask. He noted, "For the most part, 99% cooperate. We get a handful of customers per week who don't wear a mask, and we don't make a big deal about it because we have the plexiglass barriers up." The business has over 350 craft, antique and vintage merchants all under one roof. 

An executive order put in place by Whitmer in April requires Michigan residents to wear a mask when in enclosed public places. They're also required to maintain at least six feet of social distancing from people other than those in their household.

Ways to De-escalate Negative Situations with Customers

(Tips provided by Paul Beasinger, Keene Training and Consulting)

1. Greet customers calmly and professionally. Calmness models calmness.

2. Listen intently to the upset customer; don’t be distracted.

3. Be genuine and repeat three words the customer used when responding, so they know you heard them.

4. Summarize the problem so the person knows you have an accurate picture.

5. Emphasize the process to follow in order to resolve the problem.

6. Provide options to make the customer feel in control.