What will make customers feel safe in your store?

The latest IMI research breaks down how to soothe consumer concerns and drive brand affinity as the economy reopens.


As retailers and restaurants across Canada have been given the green light to reopen, a new report shows that there is one thing they can do above all else to make customers feel confident about coming back into their stores: keep things clean.

On May 14, IMI polled 1,000 North American respondents on what a business needs to do in order for them to feel safe from coronavirus.

For retailers, the most critical action ­they can take – according to 64% of respondents – is providing hand sanitizer at the door. Other key actions include offering curbside pickup (43%), making it mandatory to wear masks in stores (41%) and employing greeters to supply masks and cleaning wipes (39%) – though there was a gender split for these practices, with more women feeling confident about them than men.

The same gender split was seen in things like using protective barriers (50% of women, versus 23% of men) and promoting its health initiatives (48% of women versus 18% of men).

In restaurants and public places, the action with the most impact on confidence (according to 42% of respondents) was for businesses to clean tables before every sitting, followed by providing complimentary hand sanitizer during each visit (37%), sanitizing all equipment before use (34%) and offering no-contact food pickup (33%).

For dine-in restaurants, the most impactful action is for chefs to wear masks and gloves (43%), followed by servers wearing masks (40%) and having hand sanitizer at the table (37%) and reducing the amount of tables (32%). At events, 37% of Canadians would feel more confident if capacity was limited, followed by 33% who said they’d be more confident if there was readily available sanitizer. Signage at the event detailing cleaning and safety was not seen as particularly valuable (with only 15% of Canadians citing it).

Across sectors, things like cashless payments, showing cleaning practices in ads and using apps to schedule shopping times and learn about cleaning procedures all ranked low in terms of helping consumers feel confident.

The report also polled 1,200 Canadian respondents on which charitable actions would make them feel better towards a company in June. The number one response, according to 37% of Canadians, was donating free lunch or dinner for frontline workers, followed by offering them free cellphone service for front-liners. Several big players in the telco sector have already done this, which is resulting in a big boost in consumer trust. Donating gas to workers was also cited by 26% of respondents. Donating Disney+ or Netflix subscriptions, free tissues and coffee were the biggest laggards in terms of charitable actions that drove brand affinity.

Free lunches, dinners and cellular service could be more effective brand-building measures than simply donating food and money, but IMI noted that any direct donation drove brand sentiment during the pandemic, as long as it was authentic. One thing it did note is that the size of donations didn’t seem to present a measurable difference: the percentage difference between donations of $250,000 and $2.5 million, as well between feeding 10,000 or 100,000 people, was in the single digits. Acting quickly, executing well and being authentic to the brand have a bigger benefit than the amount donated.

When it comes to discounting as a way to help with consumers’ economic struggles during COVID-19, the report cautions that offering short term discounts provides little value in brand building and will erode margins – the benefit from adding an additional 10% discount to products or services does not outweigh the incremental cost.

Rather, it says, such discounts should be used sparingly as a short-term tactic and not a strategy for recovery – being relevant, authentic and offering good value for a quality product or experience are better drivers of brand affinity. If discounts are to be used, they are best deployed for curbside restaurant pickup orders and for cellular service (19% of respondents) rather than for ride shares or theme parks (7% and 6%, respectively).

This survey is the sixth wave of IMI’s ongoing research on how the COVID-19 impact has impacted consumer sentiment and behaviour. Don Mayo, IMI’s managing partner, will be speaking about what the future of shopping might look like today as part of the virtual Shopper Marketing Forum.