Well, here we are. Our asset protection and loss prevention teams have planned for organized retail crime, routine theft, and even floods and riots. But probably never this. President George W. Bush, Dr. Larry Brilliant, Bill Gates, and many others have warned us over the decades about emerging pathogens and the likelihood of an actual global pandemic. We’ve even had some false starts including Ebola and H1N1. However, I don’t recall anyone laying out detailed epidemic survival and recovery plans for all individuals, health care, retail, travel, museums, offices, and every other entity. And I imagine very few of us deeply planned for an almost total worldwide economic shutdown.
The overriding goal here is to encourage phased, safe, confidence-building reestablishment of more typical daily living before tens of millions of people’s livelihoods are permanently destroyed. We do this by reengineering workflows and human-interaction places and spaces using the best science and human-centered design thinking concepts.
Where to Start: Cluster Calls
Many people have used the phrase “we’re all in this together,” and it’s true of course. Ten major retail chain vice presidents started the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) in 2000 to collaborate with each other and scientists to generate more effective theft, fraud, and violence prevention frameworks and tools. And the key word here is collaboratively.
To that end, the LPRC has now conducted two rounds of five cluster calls enabling groups of eight to ten retailers to deeply explore and discuss what they’re seeing and doing to deal with and emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic (with more calls and a webinar to come). The retailers want to relate good ideas and real-world experiences, and they want good research and development to enable their companies. Corporate offices, distribution centers, and stores are all affected, and so are their suppliers and support partners. And all must somehow function to restore good commerce.
We’ve also already conducted two large calls with solution partners and are grateful the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) shared results with us on a call they did with solution providers to gather needed solution R&D concepts since solution executives are constantly talking with their customers.
Redirecting and Repurposing
A major discussion point during these cluster calls, and the regular working group calls, is around redirecting and repurposing human and technological resources to handle the newest normal.
Several retailers are, of course, moving store employees around to greet customers, meter their store entry, and help fulfill orders at curbside. Others are now busy nonstop cleaning every vertical and horizontal surface they can find. Many are busy pushing key items toward the doors for curbside transactions. Some LP team members have started deterring suspected shoplifters rather than making apprehensions due to infection concerns and lower law enforcement response levels. They’re even acting in other customer service and logistics roles.
These are some other COVID-19 moves LPRC member retailers are taking:
- Installing plexiglass barriers placed at checkout and pickup points, pharmacies, returns and exchanges counters, and office desks
- Implementing new safety and compliance audits driven by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Trialing CDC and other safe-practice signage versions, such as capacity, social distancing, shopper directions, curbside, buy online pick up in store, no return, or special returns
- Providing special training on personal protective equipment use guidelines and examples, proper store behavior and de-escalation, and cross-department training for LP
- Using LiveView towers to provide parking lot and curbside-operations safety broadcasting
- Broadcasting special in-store messages
- Leveraging existing or new CCTV systems
- Monitoring traffic flow
- Confirming virtual audits
- Monitoring events (masks, confrontations)
- Protecting curbside operations
- Using different tactics for entryway monitors
- Rotating shifts differently
- Providing special hand-hygiene stations
- Testing mask distribution options
Our University of Florida (UF) infectious diseases advisor and a founder of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute (epi.ufl.edu) has been providing very detailed ideas to build on as we design and adapt safe practices that reduce exposure, as well as the viral dose of potential exposures. Listen to the CrimeScience podcast episode featuring Dr. Fred Southwick.
First and foremost is reducing pathogen exposure. We do that by:
- Identifying and keeping infected people out of confined spaces and away from uninfected people. Our retailers are trialing quick-ask symptom surveys, using fever apps, disposable or easy-to-use thermometers, or thermal cameras to keep people with symptoms, including elevated body temperatures, out of the workplace. New tactics and tech are emerging weekly to help us with this task.
- Reducing airborne viral spread via physical separation, not directly talking at anyone (watch where our mouths are aimed), and using plastic shields, and of course masking. Tech is enabling store operators to meter customers into their store spaces, detecting symptoms like coughing, as well as intentional aggression and product tampering.
- Reducing how many times we touch our eyes, noses, and mouths after touching a surface or viral cloud. And frequently and carefully cleaning our hands, and constant, effective surface cleaning are vitally important.
All this guides store, office, distribution center, pick-up and other areas’ layout designs, clear messaging and marking, stock handling, low- or no-contact customer and employee to employee interaction, and sales transactions protocols.
Via working groups, cluster calls, and the LPRC Innovate advisory panel, retailers have prioritized some immediate, protective, R&D-support efforts. Our team has embarked on the priorities described below using our virtual reality, emersion simulation lab, simulated store or engagement lab, and camera connections with multiple stores.
Infection reduction mask dynamics are important now and possibly going forward in many ways. Retailers have asked us to make them a priority research focus. Three areas appear important and are now being studied: how masks are providing criminal offenders and aggressive guests anonymity, and how we might neutralize that; how we might reduce shopper and employee intimidation by masked people; and how we might best use masks to provide employees and shoppers more safety assurance.
Curbside interaction has dramatically grown and may continue while in-store shopping traffic grows over time, creating the need for enhanced ways to safely accommodate a mix of two-ton vehicles and a flow of pedestrians in a confined outdoor area.
Low- or no-touch transactions are a priority since it may take a generation or more to reestablish close spacing and surface touching comfort and safety. The area layout, technology, and human use mechanisms of indoor and outdoor purchase, pickup, and return are all being worked on to provide suggested actionable packages to varying retail formats.
Retailers have been very innovative in creating interior spacing using entry-metering, signage and stickering, one-way aisles, and many other tactics. The team is using our remote viewing and tour tech to propose and test layout and messaging options, precluding expensive actual store testing or repeated scale rollouts.
Another significant R&D area is leveraging rapidly emerging computer vision AI to inform managers to better serve and protect, including our team working with UF engineering faculty and Malong and other tech partners to assemble robust human activity datasets and build more powerful algorithms, especially around hazardous behavior recognition.
An abundance of pandemic information is out there from a variety of sources. Our team is working every day to curate LP-focused, actionable information for you and your teams. The LPRC CrimeScience podcast offers two to four new episodes weekly featuring practitioners, scientists, and industry and medical experts providing concise ideas and updates. Look for it wherever you listen to podcasts. And our COVID-19 landing page at lpresearch.org/covid-19-resources is updated daily with new resource links and studies.
2020 LPRC IMPACT and STRATEGY@
Finally, this year’s IMPACT conference is a full go for October 4–6, as is the third year of STRATEGY@ for the most senior LP leaders. The big difference is that both will be digital using new virtual-conference platforms, but they may still include on- or near-campus components depending on safety and travel conditions near that time. Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any of your questions or suggestions. As always, I look forward to your insight, comments, and questions, and we’d love to someday work with you and your team.