With the current health crisis, retailers have had to reevaluate many of their practices and respond quickly to continuously changing regulations as the situation develops. To prevent crowds from forming, stores are faced with the need to limit occupancy. This may seem like a daunting task, but with the right strategy and tools, you can effectively set and enforce a capacity limit at your store and protect your employees and customers.
Read the full guide or jump to a specific section:
- COVID-19 and the Need to Limit Occupancy
- How to Set a Store Capacity Limit
- How to Monitor the Number of People in Your Store
- The Benefits of Using an Occupancy Counter
- How to Choose the Right Counter for COVID-19 Occupancy Restrictions
- How to Enforce a Store Capacity Limit
- Other Steps to Encourage Social Distancing at Your Store
COVID-19 and the Need to Limit Occupancy
The need to monitor a store’s capacity is not new. All stores have a maximum occupancy rating. Generally, retail establishments must limit the occupancy to one person per every 60 square feet of space. Access to exits can also influence a building’s maximum occupancy rating. This is to ensure everyone in the building could safely exit in the event of a fire. Even if you’ve never thought much about your store’s maximum occupancy in the past, you might be thinking about it now.
The spread of COVID-19 has caused many businesses to close their storefronts for the time being, but some stores, considered essential, have remained open and have had to determine how to continue serving customers while maintaining social distancing requirements. Some stores that closed temporarily are in the process of reopening and now have to grapple with how to keep their employees and customers safe as the virus continues to pose a threat.
Along with other measures like thoroughly cleaning your store regularly and offering hand sanitizing stations, one of the best ways for stores to keep customers and employees safe is to encourage social distancing. The CDC specifies that people should stay 6 feet apart to avoid passing the virus. That directive becomes impossible in a crowded store, which is why it is imperative for stores to limit the number of people inside at once. With fewer people, it becomes far more feasible to keep a safe distance between shoppers.
Some of the nation’s largest retailers have set an example in limiting their store’s occupancy to encourage safer shopping conditions. Grocery store occupancy restrictions due to COVID-19 have become commonplace. For some stores, state mandates require even more stringent measures. Certain states have required stores to limit their capacity to 20% or 25%. In these cases, stores must be especially careful to monitor the number of shoppers in their store at once.
In addition to complying with government directives, retailers should also seek to take any measures necessary to create an environment that allows customers to shop without worrying that they’ll contract the virus from other shoppers crowding the aisles. Even though people may avoid social gatherings or crowds of any kind, as we’ve seen, many people have flooded stores to stock up on essentials. In these situations, it is up to your business to keep the store from becoming overly crowded. We’re going to explore the best ways to do that.
How to Set a Store Capacity Limit
If your state has not already imposed a specific rule for store occupancy levels, you’ll need to make this determination on your own. There are a few different ways you can determine the appropriate capacity limit to set for your store. There are two basic approaches most stores use to set a new capacity limit:
- People per square footage: One approach is to determine the number of people you can safely accommodate per the amount of square footage in your building. For example, Walmart Stores have chosen to limit their occupancy to a maximum of five customers for every 1,000 square feet of their buildings.
- Percent of standard occupancy limit: Another way to approach this task is to look to the existing fire code occupancy rating and multiply it by a certain percentage. This is a simple way to reduce the number of people you could normally have in your store to a fraction such as 50%, 30% or whatever number makes sense for your store.
Simple formulas can be an easy way to arrive at a new occupancy number for your store, but it’s also wise to consider your store’s specific layout to ensure you don’t settle on a number that is too high to adequately encourage social distancing or one that is unnecessarily restrictive.
Consider factors such as how much of your square footage is open space for shoppers to navigate your store, whether there are more popular areas that could become overly concentrated and how many checkout lanes you can have open.
You should also factor in any added responsibilities your employees are taking on and ensure you only let in a manageable number of shoppers that will allow employees to stay on top of these responsibilities. For example, if you plan to disinfect carts after each use, you’ll want to make sure you don’t become overwhelmed with the number of carts that need to be disinfected.
Ultimately, you understand your facility, your employees, and your shoppers best. So, if you’re allowed to set your own capacity limit, use your judgment and as much data as you have at your disposal to arrive at a limit that makes sense for your store. If you set a limit that turns out to be too high or too low, don’t hesitate to adjust and notify shoppers of the change, thanking them for their patience.
How to Monitor the Number of People in Your Store
For a capacity limit to be useful, you must closely monitor the number of people in your store. Once you reach capacity, you must only admit shoppers as others leave to stay within the capacity limits you have set. But how can you count every person who comes in and goes out of your store? You have two main options: manually counting or using an occupant monitoring system.
Option 1: Manual Counting
To manually count the people in your store, you must have an employee stationed at the door at all times. This means you must only use one entrance and exit into your store, closing any others you might normally have open. An employee must remain at the door at all times, tallying up the number of people who walk in, and simultaneously subtracting the number of people who walk out to keep the total number of people inside accurate at all times.
They can count the people who come and go entirely in their head, or they can use a handheld tally counter device with a button to click each time you need to add one and a button to subtract one from the total. If you’re going to count manually, these devices will make it more feasible.
It’s easy to see how this method has some serious downsides. For one, an employee will have a full-time job just counting people, making this a costly way to monitor foot traffic. It also allows plenty of room for human error since a single lapse in attention or mental math error can throw off the accuracy of the occupancy count. Overall, manual counting is an option you should only resort to in a pinch.
A cloud-based solution, SafeEntry, works with existing mobile phones, tablets, or computers to effectively manage occupancy counts. Through the use of the SafeEntry portal, simply station one team member at each entrance or exit location. The team member inputs the in and out traffic into their phone or tablet and SafeEntry automatically combine the in and out traffic from all entrances so all members can view occupancy counts in real-time. Additional advantages of SafeEntry include:
- No additional hardware or installation necessary
- Set your own occupancy limits
- Real-time occupancy counts provide alerts on when it is “safe to admit” more patrons
- Unlimited numbers of entrances
- Low monthly subscription rate
- Stay compliant with COVID-19 occupancy limits
Option 2: Occupancy Counter
A more effective method to measure store traffic is to use an occupancy counter, also known as a people counter. With an occupancy counter, there’s no need for manual counting. Instead, the system uses technology to track people coming and going from your store automatically. Typically, this technology is infrared, thermal or video-based.
In the case of an infrared sensor, when the beam is broken, the system knows a person has passed through, and that person is added to the occupancy count for your store. Thermal people counters can detect body heat, which allows them to detect the multidimensional movement from multiple people passing through at once. Video occupancy counters detect people who come and go through video and can provide sophisticated data.
You mount the occupancy counter at the entrance and exit of your store and allow it to do the work. The data goes to a software application. You can choose to record this data at the end of the day or in more frequent increments. When you want to monitor occupancy throughout the day, you can track this data in real-time. Occupancy counters take the guesswork and the inconvenience of manual counting out of occupancy monitoring.
The Benefits of Using an Occupancy Counter
There are important benefits you can capitalize on when you install a people counter at your business, both for the immediate circumstances tied to COVID-19 and in the long term. Some of these benefits include:
- Compliance with official regulations: One key benefit of using an occupancy counter is that it can greatly assist you in abiding by whatever regulations the federal, state or local government has imposed. Without a way to monitor the number of people in your store, you cannot reliably abide by these restrictions, which could lead to negative consequences such as fines.
- Automated counting: If you need to track the number of customers in your store, as we’ve seen, the alternative to using an occupancy counter is to count manually. This requires an employee to be stationed at the door at all times to count. This may not be a practical option for you. Having a system keep count automatically is far more convenient.
- Accurate monitoring: Another problem with a person counting is that it can result in an inaccurate count. Especially when you’re trying to keep track of everyone coming and going, you are bound to miss some people. With the right occupancy counter, you can keep an accurate tally at all times of how many people are in your store.
- Demonstrated care for customers: Closely monitoring the number of people in your store demonstrates a level of care and concern for your community and your customers that will help your company’s reputation during a time when businesses are often under a greater degree of scrutiny than usual.
- Insightful data on sales: In addition to the immediate benefits of occupancy monitoring for coronavirus-related concerns, an occupancy counter can also provide data on the comings and goings of customers, which can help you learn more about your conversion rates, the effectiveness of marketing efforts and more.
- Data to help optimize layout and staff: Occupancy data from a people counter can also help you make more informed decisions about the best ways to deploy your staff and to layout your store. You can install bi-directional occupancy counters in specific departments or areas in your store to gain insight into the traffic patterns that occur throughout your store.
How to Choose the Right Counter for COVID-19 Occupancy Restrictions
Not all people counters work just as well for restricting your occupancy for social distancing purposes. Here are some things you want to look for when choosing a people counter to help you keep people safe during this difficult time:
1. Bi-Directional Counting
Some systems cannot distinguish from people entering or exiting your store. With these options, you must divide the total number of people to pass the sensor during the day in half to determine how many people visited your store over the day.
While this option may work when you are looking to record occupancy data for other purposes, this technology is inadequate when you need to closely monitor the number of shoppers in the store throughout the day to stay within a capacity limit. In this case, you’re better off choosing a bi-directional counter, which can detect whether people are walking in or out. These occupancy counter sensors use infrared technology to detect the direction of a person’s movement.
2. Real-Time Reporting
You also want to choose a system that can use software to provide real-time data on the number of people in your store. Look for software that is user-friendly and will make it convenient to check up on your store’s occupancy throughout opening hours. Daily or hourly reports on the number of shoppers at your store aren’t enough in this instance.
3. Customization Options
You also want a system that allows you to customize settings. This way, you can tailor the system to meet your current needs and alter the settings in the future to adapt as changes come. Look for software that allows you to set customized occupancy limits and to choose whether to include or exclude employees from occupancy counts.
4. Customer-Facing Display
In addition to your user interface, you may also want a display your customers can view. A customer-facing screen at your store’s entrance can display the number of people inside according to your counter and can use your customized limit to inform customers if there is room for them to enter or if the store is currently full.
Even if the store is not yet at capacity, providing customers with the number of people inside will allow them to make an informed decision they’re comfortable with as to whether they should enter. This is an excellent way to show care for your customers during a time that can be especially challenging and scary for many.
5. Quick and Easy Installation
Because of the urgency of our current health crisis, you want to be able to implement occupancy solutions quickly. This means you should choose a system that is fast and easy to install. An out-of-box system you can install yourself in under an hour is ideal. You want to start accurately counting customers right away so you can demonstrate your commitment to public health and safety.
How to Enforce a Store Capacity Limit
Once you know the capacity limit you’re going to set for your store and you have a way to track the number of people who come and go, you need to develop a plan for how you will enforce your store’s capacity limit. After all, just knowing there are too many shoppers in your store won’t help anyone. You have to restrict access to your store once you’ve hit your capacity to prevent overcrowding.
Once you see from your occupancy counter dashboard that you’ve reached your store’s capacity level, have an employee go to the door to direct traffic. As people approach, your store associate can politely inform them that the store is currently full but they’ll be admitted shortly, as soon as there is room.
To facilitate social distancing, mark areas 6 feet apart on the sidewalk in front of your store’s entrance so people can line up and wait their turn to enter. It’s smart to include signage in this area about the steps your store is taking to keep customers safe.
Enforcing your store’s restrictions on occupancy does require an employee’s time, but unlike manual counting, this employee only needs to be stationed at the door when the store is full. If there are only 30 shoppers in your store, and the limit you’ve set is 70, then there’s no need to monitor the entrance.
Other Steps to Encourage Social Distancing at Your Store
In addition to limiting your store’s capacity level, you can also implement other strategies to help encourage social distancing in your store. Some additional steps to consider taking include:
- Limiting families: Some retailers have lamented the problem of entire families accompanying each other on a shopping trip, resulting in more crowding. If this is a problem at your store, you can request or require that only a certain number of people from one family come together. For example, you could implement a one or two people per cart rule. Costco chose to admit only two family members per membership card at a time.
- One-way movement: Especially if your aisles are relatively narrow, you may want to implement one-way movement in your aisles. You can do this by placing arrow decals on the floor to show shoppers which way to enter and exit the aisle. This can help prevent shoppers from coming into close contact from passing each other in the aisle.
- Floor markers at checkout: To prevent customers from standing close together in line waiting to check out, you can place markers on the floor or place signs every 6 feet apart to show shoppers where to stand. Visual markers like this can help shoppers who may be unsure of how far apart they need to stand.
- Signage and announcements: Placing signs throughout your store or playing announcements over the loudspeaker can be a helpful way to remind shoppers of best practices for safe shopping. Simple reminders can be enough to help shoppers remember to be careful when they may otherwise feel overwhelmed and forget to stay vigilant.
Monitor Your Store Capacity and Stay Within Limits With SafeCount Software
Occupancy restrictions from COVID-19 can be challenging, but with the right tools, you can meet this challenge head-on and reap many benefits in the long term for your business. If you need to implement a people counting system, Traf-Sys Inc. has a range of hardware and software to meet your needs.
Our SafeCount software is an ideal solution for stores responding to coronavirus concerns. You can install this turnkey solution in just 30 minutes and immediately begin enjoying the benefits of accurate counting and insightful data. Contact us today to learn more about how Traf-Sys can help you monitor your store’s capacity level.