A man approached Michael Gill at a Walmart in Toronto and asked about toilet paper. Gill nodded and led the way to a stack of rolls in the centre of the store as if it was his job. But it isn’t his job, not officially anyway.
Though dressed like a store clerk, with a name tag and a blue vest, the 27-year-old is in charge of redesigning Walmart Canada Corp.’s 408 stores for the coronavirus era.
The Mississauga, Ont.-based chain has a COVID-19 task force consisting of dozens of people working on human resources, supply chain, logistics and operations. Gill’s job specifically concerns the front end, making changes inside the store to stop the virus from spreading to customers and staff.
“I try not to think about it too much,” he said. “I just find it incredibly distracting when you think about the millions of customers that walk through our stores every day and the 90,000 associates that we have. I tend to just focus on the task at hand.”
Like supermarket chains across Canada, taking cues from grocers in harder-hit countries around the world, Walmart has installed Plexiglass shields to protect cashiers and put tape on floors to keep customers two metres apart in checkout lines.
“This genuinely is tape from our hardware department,” Gill said of the orange and green arrows and lines on floors during a tour of a Toronto store on Friday. “What’s fascinating is that it’s signage that changes behaviour without any words on it,” he added, watching as the evenly spaced customers and carts churned past the cash registers.
He pointed out other little tweaks that regular shoppers might never notice: cashiers putting receipts in the bag instead of a customer’s hands; attendants at self-checkouts poking touchscreens with a stylus instead of a finger; staff excusing themselves to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes to wash their hands; and a big tarp draped next to the produce section that hides a row of decommissioned bulk bins.
The customer service desk also needs to be protected, with Plexiglass shields and tape on the floor, since mass layoffs have set off a persistent stream of people returning purchases they can no longer afford.
These changes sound simple, but instituting minor changes across a massive retail chain in days rather than months is a massive undertaking. Walmart has already installed 2,448 shields at cash registers around the country, some of which had to be flown to Western Canada to speed up the process.
“We just said look, we need to do it. We’ll work out the cost later,” Gill said.
The idea is to protect employees and customers while make shopping at Walmart seem as normal as possible. In the middle of this outbreak, after days inside, entering a big-box store can be like ice water on the brain. You are suddenly, alarmingly, surrounded by people.
Gill is trying to ease that transition.
The entrance of the typical Walmart store is normally crowded with product displays. Gill said the team has pushed them back, so the first few steps into a store are wide open, without any obstacles, and employees outside control the flow of customers. Others wipe down basket and cart handles before handing them off to customers.
Three weeks ago, as COVID-19 transformed from a faraway problem to a domestic one, Gill sat at his desk at home and mapped out the process of shopping at Walmart, listing every minor detail.
He has a pretty good idea, since he’s worked at Walmart in one capacity or another since he was a teenager.
Gill started with a part-time job at Asda, the British supermarket chain owned by Walmart Inc., near his home town in southeastern England. In his early 20s and wanting to travel, he transferred to a Walmart in Calgary, then became a store manager in Yellowknife, then Vancouver, before moving to the Canadian headquarters as a senior manager of store innovation.
“I just went from beginning to end, as soon as you enter the parking lot.” he said. “You park your car. You get out of your car … It was a long list.”
Gill did the same for a store clerk’s routine. Then he spent hours on a conference call with his team, going over every line, looking for risks.
One of the steps they noticed was the act of reaching for the rectangular divider on the conveyor belt at checkout. It was something that so many people touched, but didn’t need to, not now. They got rid of it.
I always try to focus on what I can control
“I always try to focus on what I can control,” Gill said.
What he can control right now are little things — glass, tape, hand washing, wiping down surfaces — across hundreds of stores with thousands of staff.