Precarious times for retail workers: mannequins wearing face masks in a shop window in Islington, north London
Precarious times for retail workers: mannequins wearing face masks in a shop window in Islington, north London © Getty

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“Health ambassador” suggests a surgeon taking time out to explain her job to schoolchildren, or a scientist or celebrity spreading healthcare messages for the WHO.

Walmart’s new health ambassadors may need to do some lecturing, too. But the US chain has created the role to explain the requirement to wear masks in its stores to an audience of potentially disgruntled customers.

England’s retailers will find their diplomatic skills put to the test from July 24, when mandatory mask-wearing is introduced, with the threat of £100 fines for rule-breakers.

In Scotland, which implemented a similar measure on July 10, retailers report 90 to 95 per cent of customers are complying. What about that uncooperative one in 10 or 20, though? The traditional British response to mild inconvenience is to mutter and tut. Elsewhere, masks have become an emotional and political issue, often calling for a nightclub bouncer rather than a smooth-talking special envoy.

In the US, shoppers’ reactions to obligatory masking include spitting at or coughing on staff and even, in one case, allegedly killing a security guard who insisted on store policy.

In the UK, enforcement falls to the police, though it seems likely they will only tackle extreme incidents. A nation of shopkeepers will have to decide whether to ignore or confront customers who flout the law.

Even applied with a light touch, this new responsibility is bound to take its toll. One source of guidance may come from airline cabin crew, used to the strain of maintaining their cool when explaining and applying safety protocols. Their work attracted the attention of sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in the 1980s. She included her study of flight attendants, who were required to act “nicer than natural” for hours on end, in her book The Managed Heart. She compared what she called the “emotional labour” of cabin crew to the physical labour of child factory workers, criticised by Karl Marx in Das Kapital.

Researchers have since expanded on that work, pointing out that the task of suppressing anger and providing “service with a smile” to consumers who sometimes claim a licence to be nasty leads to burnout and breakdown. Throw in job, financial, and health anxiety and the burden becomes even greater. Checkout operators at my local supermarket told me that shoppers became gradually ruder as lockdown progressed. “I never got snippy but once I started masking up, I had to make a more conscious effort to chat to the staff. Often I didn’t bother,” said one.

Among the factors that could mitigate this pressure is the clarity of the message to customers: the post-Covid shopper’s equivalent of the aircraft safety card. Alicia Grandey, a psychology professor at Penn State University, told me that, in theory, improved signage should help: from, “No shoes, no shirt, no service”, to, “No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service”.

A second vital element is training. Recognising when a customer has a valid reason not to wear a mask is important to avoid unnecessary conflict. Staff will have to know how their store serves people who cannot enter, whether by searching for specific goods on their behalf or guiding them to click-and-collect services. There may even be an opportunity for retailers to cement a customer relationship if they can demonstrate they have improved their safety and service. I feel more warmly towards the computer store that assigned a staff member at the door to help me browse devices safely and hygienically.

Finally, management. Prof Grandey is co-author of one paper that links emotional labour to heavy drinking, particularly in service jobs where employees have little control. When managers give team members more autonomy — about how to react to customers’ complaints, say — this emotional work is less oppressive. “If I feel that my manager has my back, I know that if I handle that [situation] and the customer gets upset, I’m not going to lose my job,” she says. She also speculates that if retail staff have to wear masks (which will not be an obligation in England), they will feel less pressure to fake a smile.

Pandemic or no pandemic, it is a poor employer that is not already applying these principles.

But these are precarious times for retail workers. A straw poll of shop staff in the town outside London where I live suggested a mixture of trust — “I’m sure most will wear a mask,” said my newsagent cheerfully — and preparedness. “If we assume the worst of each other, then things can escalate,” Prof Grandey warns. My impression, however, is that for near-empty shops long starved of custom, having to deal with an influx of shoppers, masked or unmasked, irritable or placid, would be a nice problem to have.



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