The virus known as SARS-CoV-2 is at the moment arguably one of mankind’s greatest threats. Efforts to stem the spread of the disease through the disruption of its major means of transmission have complicated life all around the globe in a matter of only a few months. Strategies to protect people from each other’s potentially infectious breaths have proved to be easier to adopt than those suggested to deal with infection spread by contact of contaminated surfaces i.e. instructions to wear masks and practice social distancing are easier to communicate and recall than suggestions to regularly disinfect surfaces and avoid touching objects (and surfaces) that get touched by a lot of people.
Just to demonstrate how problematic the latter is, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe released more banknotes into circulation right in the middle of the pandemic. While there are currently no WHO guidelines discouraging the use of physical cash, the central bank’s timing is nevertheless strange given the general uncertainty around the issue.
In appreciation that face masks and social distancing are not enough to prevent the spread of the disease, stores all over the world are cobbling together strategies (and technologies) to minimise customers’ contact with common surfaces. Recognising all of the ways the virus is spread and taking appropriate steps to reduce transmission via as many of these as possible is important if we want to speed up the return of normalcy to the world; after all, according to most estimates the earliest we can expect a vaccine is mid-to-late next year (2021). This means that practices which prevent the spread of the virus via surfaces need to be preached about as much as the need for masks and social distancing. In the same vein, what follows is a discussion of how retailers can move closer to offering completely “contactless” shopping experiences to their customers.
Self-opening doors (or just people to open them)
Many shops have doors which the customers normally open for themselves, from entrances and exits to those belonging to the in-store refrigerators. The handles of these are obvious potential germ hotbeds. To prevent this, these entrances can be fitted with self-opening doors (or just be left open during working hours). When it comes to the refrigerators, even in this day and age, the idea of a self-opening one sounds far-fetched. Stores can instead just instruct attendants to open these for customers. This can also be done with entrances and exits— guards or other shop employees can also be posted at these to open for customers.
Touchless payment interfaces
Debit and credit cards are fast losing their appeal because of the sheer amount of touching needed to work with them. To begin with, many payment terminals—particularly those widely used in Zimbabwe—seem to have been designed with the idea that the teller would swipe on behalf of the customers. This means that the cards themselves are already at a higher risk of getting contaminated because of the large number of people (tellers) who have to touch them. Then comes the key input pads on the payment terminals which every card payer has to use to enter their PINs. Also, many of these machines were not built to be disinfected which means any attempt to do so will likely cause permanent damage.
One obvious alternative to all this touching is the increased adoption of mobile payment technologies. Zimbabwe has no problem in this area as a very significant amount of all currency in circulation already exists as mobile money.
Buy online, pick-up in store
This expression, abbreviated as BOPIS, is pretty self-descriptive: Customers shop online and pick up their orders in person. This allows them to shorten the lengths of their store visits to the time it takes for the shop employees to complete their orders. This practice embraces (part of) the convenience of online shopping while eliminating the need for delivery and its associated charges and wait times. The convenience in question is the elimination of the physical exertion that comes with moving around store aisles and the ability to shop at home at your own pace and time. This practice was already catching on in other parts of the world before the COVID-19 outbreak but right now it brings with it the promise of avoiding crowds, queues and other presently risky situations. Besides benefitting shoppers, the practice will reduce congestion and queues in stores and hence make it easier to enforce social distancing rules.
These are arguably one of the simplest ways of managing queues and enforcing social distancing. It is therefore surprising that they have failed to catch on locally. Retailers often have to manage crowds and queues of jostling customers on their premises, many of whom will be more interested in their errands than in any of the social distancing rules. Security guards and other store employees are therefore forced to perform the daunting task of pleading with grownups to queue properly. At the very least paint can be used to create markings on the floor which are about a metre or two apart from each other. These should then be enough to encourage the spacing apart of all but the most chaotic of queues.