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Retailers to shoppers: We want you—but in smaller numbers

April 3, 2020, 9:05 PM UTC

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Normally, retailers are very eager to see throngs of people visit their stores. But as with everything else, the coronavirus outbreak has changed that.

Earlier this week, a top executive at Walmart, urged shoppers to be more surgical in their shopping trips, and take whatever steps they need to in order to visit stores less often and with fewer people in tow. Basically: Get in and get out, please.

On Friday afternoon, Walmart announced new measures to limit crowds at its stores. Starting this weekend, it will allow people to enter from only one entrance, lining up outside as needed, and have them exit through another. Walmart stores will also limit the number of shoppers to five for every 1,000 square feet. (A Walmart Supercenter is about 180,000 square feet in size.) That means about 20% of a store’s usual capacity.

The chains lucky enough to still be operating stores during the broad lockdown are grappling with keeping the coronavirus from spreading at their stores and sickening employees and shoppers. Some have taken steps such as installing plexiglass separators at cash registers, implementing one-way aisles in stores, and making masks and gloves available to employees. Now, more and more, they worry about crowd sizes, too.

“This is not the time to have a social gathering and load up the family to go shopping,” Walmart executive vice president of corporate affairs Dan Bartlett told reporters at a briefing this week. “The more efficient customers can be, and limited in the amount of people they bring, and the time they spend in the stores to just get their shopping done, the better.”

In normal times, retailers like Walmart want shoppers to linger: It increases the odds they’ll make an impulse purchase. But the need to keep store workers—and customers—healthy during this pandemic means less is more when it comes to shopper traffic.

Home Depot, about to head into the busiest time of year by far for home-improvement retailers, just eliminated its major spring promotions “to avoid driving high levels of traffic to stores.” That would be like Best Buy, Walmart, or Target saying, “No in-store deals on Black Friday.”

On Thursday, Target announced a whole slew of measures to lessen the risk of transmission, including metering the number of guests allowed inside stores at any one time, if need be. A number of retailers are already doing so, including Walgreens and Amazon’s Whole Foods grocery chain.

It seems these actions are consistent with what U.S. shoppers have already decided to do anyway. Data released Friday by Catalina Marketing, a research firm that tracks consumer product sales at grocers and drugstores, found that in the week ended March 28, the number of shopping trips to such stores fell 13% compared with the same week in 2019.

At the same time, though, the amount spent per visit increased by 31% that week. And a lot of spending seems to going to baking products and other items related to staying at home: Catalina found flour sales rose 154%, while baking mix sales were up 99%.

This is consistent with the imperative to keep workers healthy. Workers out sick won’t be able to restock shelves and check customers out. Big retailers have been falling over themselves these days to offer employees temporary raises that amount to danger pay. But it’s clear that workers’ fears for their safety are growing, as evidenced by the controversy at Amazon this week, and employees walking off the job at places like Whole Foods, and that protecting them is good for business.

As Walmart’s Bartlett put it this week, “We have an obligation to listen to our associates, listen to our customers.”

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

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—What small businesses applying to the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program need to know
—The worst part of losing 10M jobs in 2 weeks? The real number may be much higher
—Why the U.S. is changing its mind on coronavirus face masks
Americans face hunger crisis as SNAP benefits are harder for some to get
Tax-exempt student loan assistance is now law. It’s time to make it permanent
—Hospitals are running low on the most critical supply of all: oxygen
—PODCAST: Two health care CEOs on why coronavirus tests and vaccines are the ammunition needed to fight COVID-19
—VIDEO: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19

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