Dealing with unruly patrons who refuse to wear a mask has become an unexpected part of the job for many grocery store employees, but one supermarket CEO is taking steps to ensure that her team doesn't get caught in the middle of any heated mask disputes.
After seeing several videos of shoppers across the country acting out over mask requirements, Kings Food Markets CEO Judy Spires devised an innovative approach to enforcing masks in her own stores.
It all starts when customers enter the store, which currently has 25 locations across New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. If they come in without a mask, employees hand them a packet that includes a complimentary mask and a card explaining why they're required in the store. At the very bottom of the card, shoppers are encouraged to contact Spires directly on her personal cell phone if they have any questions or concerns.
"This is something that we really thought long and hard about. I didn't want our associates being put in any kind of situation where they had to deal with a customer who was refusing to wear a mask," she told NBC News consumer and investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen. "The buck stops here. I want to be responsible and if there's a problem that needs to be taken care of that could escalate, I don't want to put that on anyone else but myself."
The mask debate has heated to a boiling point in many states and Spires said she's hoping to avoid the unfortunate mask showdowns that have occurred in many stores across the country.
"It breaks my heart. I mean it's just a simple thing, it's not 'Big Brother' trying to control us," she said. "It's us begging you, 'Please help me keep my people safe so they can be here to serve you.'"
So far, customers have mostly embraced the store's policy, and Spires has gotten a lot of positive feedback for her move.
"I've received so many wonderful letters from customers thanking us, thanking our associates, celebrating our associates," she said. "It's really protecting our associates and keeping our customers safe at the same time."
However, during one recent incident, a customer started shouting in the store over the mask requirement and later called Spires to discuss the matter. The two agreed to disagree on their mask viewpoints, but the customer eventually agreed to wear one next time they shopped in the store.
Of course, there are customers who physically can't wear a mask due to certain medical conditions, and Spires has trained her employees to help accommodate them, too, encouraging them to give such shoppers plenty of space so they are protected.
"Our teams are instructed to also let them know that we have curbside pickup for their next shopping trip or online ordering and get it delivered to them that way," she said.
In addition to enforcing a mask requirement, all Kings Food Markets locations have installed plexiglass shields at registers, sanitizing stations throughout the store and signs directing foot traffic to ensure social distancing.
So far, King’s in-store efforts to protect both customers and its more than 2,000 employees seem to be paying off. Earlier this year, five employees contracted coronavirus but Spires told TODAY that the store has had zero additional cases since early April. Still, she's hesitant to declare a victory just yet and hopes her store's mask requirement will continue to keep everyone safe.
"People, please don't let your guards down. We've come a long way. We know that as we work together, we can do this," she said.