The Unusual Way One Supermarket Chain Is Handling The Face Mask Debate

Whoever would have thought that mandatory mask mandates would be the great battleground of 2020, the hot-button issue that tore families and friends apart and made a simple trip to the grocery store something akin to walking through the swinging doors of a Wild West saloon? And yet, we've all heard of (or, if less fortunate, seen) the throw downs in the aisles as one side pits its right to bare faces against the other side's desire to remain free from COVID-19.

Store management has addressed the need to protect customers in varying ways, with Whole Foods in the forefront of giving out free masks, Costco seemingly receiving the brunt of anti-mask protests (despite its heroic employees), and Winn-Dixie just opting out of the whole mess (although they eventually changed their minds and required them). 

One chain, however, is adopting a unique approach — as Today reports, Judy Spires, the CEO of New Jersey-, New York-, and Connecticut-based Kings Food is allowing shoppers access to her personal cell phone number so they can dispute the issue with her directly.

How Kings Food's new approach is playing out

As Spires told NBC News consumer and investigative reporter Vicky Nguyen (via Today), "I didn't want our associates being put in any kind of situation where they had to deal with a customer that was refusing to wear a mask," so she created a packet to be given to each shopper containing a mask and a card explaining why they're being requested to wear it. At the bottom of the card is a number where she can be reached directly. As to why Spires would take such a bold step, she explained: "The buck stops here. I want to be responsible and if there's a problem that needs to be taken care of that could escalate, I don't want to put that on anyone else but myself."

So how have Kings Food shoppers been responding? Spires says that for the most part, the response has been overwhelmingly positive: "I've received so many wonderful letters from customers thanking us, thanking our associates, celebrating our associates." She only described one instance in which a belligerent customer called her to debate the issue. While they ultimately agreed to disagree about the larger implications of the matter (you know, the whole civil liberties vs. stopping the spread of infection thing), the customer did agree to wear a mask the next time they shopped at King's. Hmm, facing down a serious issue with politeness, understanding, and responsibility... Judy Spires, the queen of King's, is our new pandemic heroine.

Kings Food's method might reduce madness in customers

Considering the bitter backlash that some stores have seen in reaction to their mask requirements, it might sound like sheer madness that Spires put her ears at the mercy of furious customers. But the method to that madness might be what stops people from getting mad at her. As psychologist Bernard Golden observes, "Being controlled provokes anger. So does feeling controlled" (via Psychology Today). Notably, a 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that anger over a perceived loss of agency may trigger an increase in risk-taking behavior, possibly fostering a feeling of regained control in the face of uncertainty – or in Kings Food's case, a face mask. 

But Spires gave people a platform to air their grievances. They wouldn't be vainly screaming into the ether but into her ear. In some cases, lending a sympathetic ear to someone who wants to complain may make them feel validated, writes author Robert Biswas-Diener, more excitingly known as the "Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology" (via Psychology Today). Moreover, when people attempt to enter the store without a mask, rather than being turned away – arguably another loss of control – they get official permission to complain to the person at the top of the pecking order. 

How Kings Food is comforting customers with food

In addition to making its CEO available to the customers seeking an explanation or a place to vent, Kings Food has boosted the availability of some of its most sought-for items. In a message posted on the Kings Food website, Spires notes that the chain has tried to ease the financial burden of the pandemic by reducing the prices of more than 750 popular items. The company also expanded its offerings to include more ready-to-cook meals and comfort food. To make life more comfortable for employees, Kings Food has also installed sanitation stations throughout its locations, signs guiding foot traffic, and plexiglass barriers at registers.

These steps have arguably paid off thus far. Kings Food employees more than 2,500 yet have only seen five confirmed COVID-19 infections among its workers as of this writing. And with shoppers mostly appearing to embrace Spires' customer-minded approach to safety, maybe patrons who feel suffocated by mask restrictions will breathe a little easier following them at Kings Food Markets.