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28 May 2020

Three in 10 feel unsafe at the shops as face mask usage increases

Find out what retailers are doing to keep shoppers safe
Man wearing a face mask

Three in 10 Which? members currently feel unsafe in the shops based on retailers' implementation of social distancing and hygiene measures and other customers' behaviour, according to new Which? research.

With non-essential shops preparing to reopen from 15 June, the government and retail sector alike are hoping customers will return to the high street and kick-start England's economic recovery.

But with many people fearing for their safety, effective social distancing measures will be essential to giving shoppers the courage to return to their old shopping habits.

Here, we look at how people feel about shopping in-store, whether they think that wearing a mask will protect them and others from spreading coronavirus, and the safety measures retailers are implementing to make shopping as safe as possible.

Many left with no choice but to visit a shop

Between 15 and 19 May, we asked 5,619 Which? members how they'd felt while shopping in-store in the previous two weeks.

Based on retailers' implementation of social distancing and hygiene measures and other shoppers' behaviour, three in 10 said they had felt unsafe, while 41% said they did feel safe. (The remaining 31% either didn't know or felt neither safe nor unsafe.)

For many, shopping in-store is the only option, with a quarter saying they'd struggled to get an online grocery delivery slot.

Face mask usage increases following change to guidelines

We ran our survey shortly after the government changed its guidelines to state that people should consider wearing face masks in indoor spaces where social distancing is difficult, such as shops.

Some 38% of members said that since the guidelines were changed, they had either started wearing a face mask in shops or planned to do so. A quarter said they hadn't worn a mask so far and didn't intend to start.

Some 14% had already been wearing masks and will continue to do so.

Nearly two in 10 of our survey respondents said they'd bought a face mask in the past five days, and a third of those who had not bought a mask were planning to make one themselves at home.

  • If you're planning to use a face mask, it makes sense to do so in the safest way possible. Check out our face mask advice guide to find out more.

What social distancing measures are already in place?

Trade body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and retail workers union Usdaw together published a suite of guidelines for all essential stores that have remained open throughout the crisis.

These guidelines have formed the bedrock of measures supermarkets and pharmacies have taken to keep staff and shoppers safe over the past couple of months.

You can read the full publication here, but a summary of the key measures is as follows:

  • Limits to customer numbers
  • Installing panels at tills
  • Clear signage explaining social distancing inside and outside stores
  • Encouraging customers to shop alone where possible
  • Markings to indicate queue distancing inside and outside stores
  • One-way systems
  • Cashless payments

Shoppers have become familiar with many of these measures now, with queuing outside stores now an accepted part of the shopping experience.

What new social distancing measures could shops introduce?

Even after lockdown is eased, it is increasingly clear that social distancing will need to be in place for a significant period of time. This has led some retailers to consider longer-term social distancing measures.

Asda has said it expects social distancing to last for the rest of the year, and it is trialling a 'virtual queue' app to allow shoppers to wait from the safety of their cars, rather than outside the supermarkets themselves.

Aldi is set to install a 'traffic light' system outside its doors, only allowing them to open when the number of shoppers inside hits the safe 'green' level.

A number of recently reopened homeware stores are giving staff temperature checks. Furniture Village even has these temperature checks in place for customers.

Some retailers have used their periods of closure to develop unique social distancing measures of their own.

Many shops are planning to 'quarantine' goods that shoppers touch but don't buy. In effect this would mean taking them off the shelves and keeping them away from customers for a set amount of time.

Waterstones will reportedly quarantine books for three days after customers handle them, and Kurt Geiger will quarantine shoes for 24 hours after a customer has tried them on - despite also requiring shoppers to wear disposable socks.

And when its pubs reopen, JD Wetherspoon plans to provide goggles for staff, as well as the customary masks and gloves. They will also be asked to hand customers their drinks glasses by holding them at the base.