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14 July 2021

Why Waterstones is smart to ask customers to wear masks

The bookshop's customers are more likely to support mask-wearing – but other businesses will face a tougher choice.

By Will Dunn

The high-street bookseller Waterstones announced on 13 July that it would “encourage our customers to wear face masks and observe social distancing” after 19 July, when the legal requirement to wear face coverings will be lifted in England. It is the first high-street retailer to make such an announcement.

The policy was picked up by the Twitter contrarians who feed, like the pulsing saprophytes they are, on the confected outrage of people who keep their reading to 140 characters or fewer. A few people on Twitter say they plan to “boycott” Waterstones, in much the same way that I intend to continue my lifelong boycott of bungee jumping.

However, Waterstones is within the law – as a private company it can ask you to wear a face mask on its premises without infringing your rights, unless it does so in a way that’s discriminatory – and the policy is explicitly one of “encouragement”, not enforcement.

It’s also a sensible business decision for Waterstones because its customer demographic closely matches the demographic most likely to comply with mask-wearing guidelines. In the UK women buy 57.5 per cent of all print books, according to Nielsen Book Research, and an estimated 80 per cent of fiction in the UK, US and Canada. The people most likely to be “heavy book-buyers” in the UK, buying 16 or more books per year, are women aged 55 to 84.

Women are also more likely to voluntarily wear a mask in a shop. A YouGov poll in May found that 70 per cent of women in the UK plan to keep wearing a mask on public transport or in shops this summer. The people most likely to refuse to wear a mask are men – especially, according to one US study, men who think they’re well hard. (Do they not realise you can buy a mask designed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to give Covid the People’s Elbow?)

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From the 2020 Nielsen Book Research data, 64.1 per cent of people who buy books in the UK are educated to at least A-level, and 44.6 per cent have a degree. Again, this mirrors polling in the US that shows college graduates are more likely to wear a mask in public than non-college graduates.

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Waterstones’ customers are also more likely to be from urban or suburban areas, because that’s where its shops are, and this, too, correlates with a higher likelihood of mask-wearing – Londoners are the most likely to say they will continue to observe infection control this summer. 

It will do no damage to Waterstones’ public image to be associated with a policy that its customers would almost all have agreed with anyway, and the company – which has faced questions about paying its staff the living wage – is one of many high-street chains that needs good PR to capitalise on the reopening, especially just before the school holidays begin and people begin shopping for summer reads.

But as the government makes controlling the still-raging global pandemic the responsibility of businesses and individuals, many other retailers and venues will have to answer this question against their own markets. Some may be forced to choose between the preferences of their customers and the safety of their staff.