Retail workers have been as much ‘on the front line’ as anyone else throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and they deserve our respect for their hard work. Black Press File Photo

Retail workers have been as much ‘on the front line’ as anyone else throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and they deserve our respect for their hard work. Black Press File Photo

On the front line: How Island shops coped with COVID-19

Vancouver Island retail businesses deal with panic, exhaustion and change

When we think of “front-line worker” these days, we generally think of those in the medical profession.

You know, the people who have been wearing masks long before it was cool.

But of all the “essential services” that have been continuing throughout the pandemic, the one we’ve all had to continue interracting with is the retail sector.

We all have to eat, after all.

And the stresses imposed on the people working in retail are just as real as the people working at the hospital and doctor’s offices.

One retail worker, who we are only identifying as Keith to protect him from any possible repercussions from his employer, says the past 10 months or so have been “absolutely crazy.”

The panic arrives

Keith works for one of Vancouver Island’s larger retail stores. His job is mainly about keeping the shelves full and helping customers find what they’re looking for.

Back in March, however, his job became a whole lot different.

“At the beginning, people were super panicked,” he says. “They were buying everything. Like, everything they could get their hands on. They were stealing things out of each others’ carts. They were fighting over items, shaming people who were grabbing large amounts of things while they were grabbing whatever they could get themselves. It was crazy.”

And there’s one particular day that stands out to him. He went into work one day and found out his role that day was not to keep the shelves stocked and help people find what they were looking for, but to guard the toilet paper.

“We were being paid to stand beside the toilet paper because there was a one pack limit and we were worried for people’s safety,” he says. “We were basically bodyguards or bouncers or something. It was absolutely bizarre. It’s not something you could have ever imagined.”

And what he was doing on any given day wasn’t the only thing that changed about his job.

The atmosphere got heavy.

“It was super tense,” he says. “There were a lot of rumours. Anytime anyone would take any time off sick, people would start talking about how they have COVID, and they got it from so and so. It was a rumour mill.”

It was like walking on eggshells, he says. People were scared.

And then they started falling into camps.

“There were those who were panicked, and then there was the opposite,” he says. “There were some of the younger people were all, like, ‘this won’t affect me even if I get it,’ and saying how they wish people would stop making such a big deal about it.”

And it wasn’t just the staff that were falling into these two camps. It was the customers, too. But by the time summer hit, Keith says, people kind of fell into a sort of acceptance. They followed the arrows on the floor, were respectful of employees and other customers, bought only what they needed, and things were going well.

Then, seemingly overnight, things changed again.

“All of a sudden the atmosphere got super tense again,” he says. “And it’s not like the numbers were going up again or anything. It wasn’t the arrival of the second wave that did it. It was like everyone had just decided they’d had enough of the rules and they’d gone on long enough.”

And the people who’d had enough started bending – or breaking – the guidelines also brought about a change in those who were still trying to be careful.

Even the people who were still trying to do things right “started getting snappy,” he says. “They were worried about people being too close or touching things or people not wearing gloves or someone not wearing a mask, and they’d get snappy because they were stressed.

“Then there was the absolute opposite,” he continues. “The people who didn’t care anymore or didn’t believe it exists or didn’t give a shit because they thought it wouldn’t do anything to them. They were actually angry. They were angry about the protocols and angry about being told to step back and stay six feet apart.”

RELATED: B.C. prepares to restart more retail, services, offices in May

Exhaustion sets in

The general manager of another Island retail outlet – who also asked not to be identified because the corporate structure of the company doesn’t allow for local stores to speak directly to the media – says enforcing government mandates has been one of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic.

“I’m not an anti-masker by any means,” he says, “but if the government wants to impose rules like this – I’m fine with that rule – but why is it my obligation, my staff’s obligation, to police that?

“We’re the ones who have to argue with people when we tell them they have to have a mask,” he continues. “We’re the ones who bear the brunt of their frustration or anger or whatever if they don’t want to. There haven’t been too many [physical altercations] at our store, but there have been a few, and you read about them all the time. It’s not fair that the government gets to put these rules in place and doesn’t help in ensuring they’re followed. It shouldn’t be on my staff to have to deal with that.”

And if there’s one word to describe how his employees are feeling, he says, it’s “tired.”

“It’s been a long, hard go of it for all of us, but everyone’s been fighting through, and they’re doing a fantastic job,” he says.

One thing that has been a particular challenge for his store – and its employees – has been the increased demand for online ordering with curbside pickup.

Don’t get him wrong; he’s happy his store has that service to offer people. It just adds to the exhaustion.

The number of orders for online ordering with in-store (or curbside) pickup at his store has increased by approximately 1,000 per cent over this time last year.

“Back in the good ‘ol days, people would come into the store, you’d have a litle chit-chat, take them to what they’re looking for, give them a pat on the back and they’d buy their thing and be on their way,” he says.

But since the advent of online ordering with local store pickup, “it’s three times more work to make the same sale. It’s more man-hours to go pick the stock, more man-hours to put it off to the side, more man hours when they come pick the order up, because you have to then go get it for them, it’s more storage space in the back to keep the orders. It might seem like little stuff, and we deal with it, but when you add everything up, it adds to the already tiring situation.”

Keith agrees that it’s been a tiring year in retail. He’s seen it impact everyone around him.

“People were booking vacation time not to take a vacation, but just to get out of there for a bit,” he says.

The local store manager, however, says most of his staff have actually not been taking their vacation days at all, because they can’t actually go anywhere and do anything. He gets his staff to book their vacation days at the beginning of each calendar year, he says, but his 2020 calendar is currently full of cancelled ones.

“Some people took some time off, but people who had a week booked would end up just taking a couple of days,” he says. “Most people didn’t take holidays at all, though. Our level of banked holidays this year is just unreal.”

That, too, adds to the exhaustion.

“When people do that, it doesn’t give them the downtime they really need,” he says.

RELATED: Masks now mandatory in all public indoor and retail spaces in B.C.

A permanent change?

What he’s most worried about, however, is the permanent change he sees possibly coming in the retail world once COVID-19 is a thing of memory.

He worries that the whole “customer service” aspect will become a lot less personal.

“We’ve worked so hard to make ourselves stand-offish for the past 10 months,” he says. “I think it’s going to take a long time for people to get the feeling of closeness back, if they ever do.”

Meanwhile, what Keith worries about is that things will actually go back to the way they were pre-pandemic.

While he would like to think this whole situation will have long-lasting impacts on the way the retail sector works – carts that get cleaned regularly, sanitizing stations placed throughout stores, people respecting each others’ space – he’s not confident that will be the case.

“Do you want a best-case-scenario or do you want what I think is realistically going to happen?” he asks rhetorically. “I think the plexiglass and shielding and stuff will probably stay in place – at least I’d hope so, just for general safety and germ spreading.

“But I’m already seeing the sanitizer stations disappear,” he says. “I’m seeing the arrows come off the floors. I don’t have a lot of hope that things won’t just go back to the way they were before the pandemic. Honestly, I don’t believe we’ll learn a lot from this.”

But even if things don’t change much in the retail environment itself, he hopes that the general public’s behaviour will change a little, if even just in terms of handwashing and sanitization. Germs will always exist, after all, and there are dangerous ones that aren’t coronaviruses.

Think about how many people could have touched the thing you’re about to touch, he says.

“Even if I just washed my hands right before I put that thing on the shelf,” he says, “somebody else took it off the truck, sombody else put it on the truck, somebody else wrapped it before it got put on the truck. There have been a lot of hands on that thing before yours get to it. So maybe at least try to make sure yours are clean and then clean them again frequently.

“And maybe have a bit more self-cosciousness about what you’re doing,” he continues. “Recognize that if you’re picking something up and putting it back down, you could be spreading something to somebody else. Just stand there for an extra 10 seconds and think, ‘do I really want this?’ instead of picking it up to think about it and then putting it back when you decide you don’t want it and getting your damn germs all over it.”

And both Keith and the local store manager think everyone just needs to be a little nicer to each other, whether we’re in a pandemic or not.

“There’s an old saying about treating others how you want to be treated,” Keith says. “and I really think that’s something that more people should live by.”

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RELATED: Island’s biggest shopping centre getting ready for return of retailers and shoppers

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