'We are the new Disneyland:' Essential workers in Walmart, Costco, and Target are frustrated by bored customers browsing stores for nonessential purchases amid the pandemic

Essential businesses have been running out of essential items for weeks.Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via Getty Images
  • Some retail workers at essential businesses are frustrated by customers who are lollygagging in stores and purchasing nonessential items.
  • Employees at Walmart, Costco, Target, Staples, and CVS stores across the US told Business Insider that they have noticed customers using the store as a means of entertainment as opposed to quickly picking up essential goods.
  • Five employees in Costco, Walmart, Target, and Staples stores said that they have noticed an increase in customers browsing and buying nonessential items.
  • "Our stores are a critical resource for the communities we serve, and we'll continue to be here for customers while also enacting protocols to help ensure our stores remain a safe environment to shop and fill prescriptions," a CVS spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement.
  • "It's important to us that Target team members feel comfortable sharing their concerns and we provide opportunities for them to do so," a Target spokesperson said in a statement. "We're focused on supporting our team and recognizing the important role they're playing for families and communities across the country amid the coronavirus."
  • Walmart and Staples did not immediately return Business Insider's request for comment. Costco declined to comment for this story.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
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It's a strange moment when a trip to the grocery store becomes the most exciting moment of your day. But as movie theaters, shopping malls, and other nonessential businesses continue to stay shuttered across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, bored shoppers are taking advantage of any chance to get out of the house.

For employees that work at essential businesses, shoppers browsing stores just for fun is more than just an annoyance — it's a danger to their work environment amid a life-threatening pandemic.

"It seems that the lack of entertainment options is driving people in[to] store[s] simply so they can leave the house," a Target employee in a California store wrote to Business Insider via email, explaining how his store generally sees groups of three or more people browsing through aisles, often looking through nonessential items.
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This worker is one of 9 retail employees who spoke to Business Insider about their experiences working during the pandemic while some shoppers lollygag in stores and shop for nonessential items. Business Insider spoke to employees from Walmart, Costco, Target, Staples, and CVS stores in California, Illinois, Texas, New York, Rhode Island, and Florida. These employees, whose identities were verified by Business Insider, were granted anonymity in order to speak more frankly about the working conditions in their stores.

Walmart and Staples did not immediately return Business Insider's request for comment. Costco declined to comment for this story.

People shop for toilet paper, food and water at a Costco in Los Angeles, California.MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images
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Homebound Americans are browsing stores for entertainment

Retail stores have taken steps to keep stores safe during the outbreak. Target, Costco, Walmart, Staples, and CVS have all limited the number of customers allowed in stores at a time, reduced store hours, and set up floor markers to encourage social distancing.

In a statement to Business Insider, a CVS spokesperson outlined the various ways that the company is keeping its stores safe, including encouraging customers to social distance and wear PPE, providing employees with masks and gloves, and complying with local orders that limit or prohibit the sale of nonessential items. But when it comes to policing consumers' attitudes toward the pandemic situation, there isn't much that a retailer can do.
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A Rhode Island CVS employee said he has seen entire families come in for a trip to the store and said that some people have brought their infants and toddlers without any protective equipment.

"Our stores are a critical resource for the communities we serve, and we'll continue to be here for customers while also enacting protocols to help ensure our stores remain a safe environment to shop and fill prescriptions," the CVS spokesperson said.

A Staples employee in a California store said he has also witnessed vulnerable shoppers wandering through his store. This employee said he saw an elderly couple come in during the pandemic with a coupon, hoping to browse for something to spend it on.
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"People are shopping because they're bored," this Staples employee said, adding that he has seen multiple people bring small children into the store with them.

"We are the new Disneyland," a Costco employee in a California store said of his store's status among locals as a place for families to hang out, bring their kids, and shop together out of boredom. This employee added that not all shoppers are taking precautions to wear masks in the store.

Target employees do not feel protected

The issue of customers shopping for a change of scenery, in part, what prompted a group of Target workers to stage a mass movement to protest unsafe work conditions. Target Workers Unite, an independent activist organization run by Target employees, is calling for all Target workers to protest working conditions by calling in sick on May 1.
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"Our maximum capacity of guests have been set too high, their demeanor is also casual and reckless," reads a blog post on the group's website. "They do not respect our space, they are not coming to our stores exclusively for essential items, but are occupying our stores out of boredom and for fun."

In a statement to Business Insider, a Target spokesperson said that the company is taking guidance from the CDC to promote safety in stores and introducing measures like limiting guest traffic and posting signs and relaying audio messages in stores that advise proper safety protocol for guests and workers. Target is also providing its workers with masks, gloves, and thermometers to check their temperatures.

"It's important to us that Target team members feel comfortable sharing their concerns and we provide opportunities for them to do so," the Target spokesperson said in a statement. "We're focused on supporting our team and recognizing the important role they're playing for families and communities across the country amid the coronavirus."
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Three Target employees in California and New York stores told Business Insider that they do not feel that customers are adjusting their shopping habits properly during the pandemic.

Like many stores, Target experienced a surge in high demand items at the start of the pandemic.Business Insider
"I do believe that some people are not taking this seriously and that to them it's just a big joke," another Target employee in a California store said. This employee said he witnessed a man wandering through his store wearing what appeared to be an old Soviet gas mask as his friend captured the video on his cell phone.
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A Target employee in a New York store said he witnessed a shopper sit in a mobile shopping cart meant for handicapped people for over 15 minutes while he made a personal phone call.

"I think it's horrible," another California Target employee said of the tendency for shoppers to dawdle through the store aimlessly. "These people are browsing with no intention of buying product. They are touching displays, even though they are turned off. They are handling product and just dumping it where they see fit. This increases my chances of contracting COVID-19 due to their lack of care."

People are buying nonessential items

Employees at Target, Costco, Staples, and Walmart all said that they have noticed shoppers coming in to buy nonessential items like electronics and coloring books.
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An Illinois Costco employee said that people have been coming into the store to solely purchase televisions. A California Target employee described a similar situation.

"People act like they are entitled to be browsing the store and casually walking around during this pandemic and that purchasing a Nintendo Switch or a TV is essential," this Target employee said.

The nonessential spending could be influenced, in part, by the recent arrival of the coronavirus stimulus checks. As Americans with Social Security numbers receive their one-time cash payments of up to $1,200, data shows that they are spending it on items like groceries as well as video games and streaming services.
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Business Insider previously reported that data compiled by the digital banking service Current, which has credited 16,595 of their customers' accounts with stimulus payments, showed that 5% of the spent stimulus money was used for video games.

A Walmart employee in a Texas store said his store sold out of televisions within days of the arrival of the stimulus checks and that other electronics like the Xbox and the Nintendo Switch have also been popular purchases as of late.

Walmart recently announced that all US employees are required to wear face masks and is encouraging their shoppers to do the same.
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Like other retailers, Walmart has taken steps to keep stores safe, like increasing sanitizing efforts, installing plexiglass shields in stores, and limiting the number of shoppers allowed in at once.

But to the Texas Walmart employee, the issue of people strolling aimlessly through the store, while difficult to curb, is still frustrating and in some cases, dangerous. "They cough and sneeze on our stuff and they look at you like they didn't do anything," this employee said, adding, "I want to lose my mind every day in there."
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Read Target's full statement to Business Insider

It's important to us that Target team members feel comfortable sharing their concerns and we provide opportunities for them to do so. We're focused on supporting our team and recognizing the important role they're playing for families and communities across the country amid the coronavirus.

Like many others, Target is taking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and we've invested in and expanded a number of measures to create a safe environment for our team members and guests. To promote social distancing, we're actively monitoring and, when needed, metering guest traffic, as well as posting signage, implementing floor decals and using overhead audio messaging in our stores. We're also providing team members at all stores and distribution centers with masks and gloves to wear at work and thermometers to use with a health checklist to track and monitor for any signs or symptoms of illness before coming to work. In addition, our rigorous cleaning routines include cleaning checklanes after every transaction and rotating the use of checklanes to allow those lanes not in use to be deep cleaned.

We'll continue to monitor the situation and make the appropriate adjustments moving forward.
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