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16 Etiquette Mistakes Everyone Is Making at Retail Stores

Confronting people for breaking the rules makes for a good Internet video but a bad shopping trip.

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Things are changing fast

In our new normal, nothing is, well, normal. That goes for reopened restaurants, hotels, salons, and—yep—retail stores. No one knows when things will return to post-pandemic normalcy so before you step foot in a store to buy that birthday present or get a few new things for your fall wardrobe, make sure you’re not making one of these all-too-common COVID-related mistakes.

“The pandemic has caused a dramatic change in social etiquette, practically overnight,” Maryanne Parker, an international business, social, and youth etiquette expert and founder of Manor of Manners. “This is not new—social events have been changing etiquette rules for centuries—but the amount of changes and the speed in which it’s happened is different.” Take, for instance, these 10 etiquette rules you can ignore thanks to COVID.

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Common etiquette mistakes people are making in stores

One place where things are markedly different is in stores. “Limited store hours, having to wait in line to enter, only a certain number of people being allowed in, having to bring disinfectant wipes, and wearing a mask; the shopping experience has changed significantly,” says Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, a civility and etiquette expert and author.

It can be hard to know what to expect these days so we asked our etiquette experts to give us the down-low on common COVID-19 mistakes they see in stores and what the new rules are so you can feel prepared the next time you head out. Check out these photos that show the new normal at restaurants.

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Talking about your shopping trip

In a strangely dystopian twist, talking about going shopping may be the biggest faux pas of going shopping at all. “It may be a mistake to tell anyone you’ve been to a department store,” Randall says. “With strong differences of opinion about what is and is not ‘essential’ shopping, I advise people to just keep that information to themselves.” And it goes without saying that you probably shouldn’t post about it on social media either if you don’t feel like getting into an argument. These are the other photos common sense says you shouldn’t post on social media.

Shopping in reopen small store from a COVID safe businessVisualCommunications/Getty Images

Handing your items to the cashier

It’s important to minimize contact with the cashier, as they have to serve many customers a day which puts them at a higher risk of infection. “When checking out, mention right away to the checkout person that you will hold the items up so the tags can be easily scanned,” says Rachel R. Wagner, a licensed corporate etiquette and international protocol consultant. “Then either ask for them to give you a bag or bring your own bag so you can fold and bag your own items. This way they don’t have to touch your things at all, which is best for both of you.” Find out more about the ways shopping will change forever.

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Fighting the return policy

Even stores with traditionally generous return policies are making changes about what they can take back and how. This has led some customers to react with anger and frustration when they can’t get their money back or it takes longer than they thought, Randall says. “Ask about their current return policy before you buy anything and don’t argue with the associate about it, they don’t make the rules,” she says. These are the new words everyone should have in their pandemic vocabulary.

Covid-19: Woman customer choosing clothes at the mall storeIgor Alecsander/Getty Images

Picking up everything to look at it

It’s hard to shop without touching things but try to avoid it as much as possible, Parker says. “Touching everything around you was considered bad etiquette even before the pandemic, but now it is seen as inconsiderate, negligent, and even jeopardizing people’s health,” she says. Only pick up what you really want to buy and keep handling it to a minimum. And know that wearing gloves doesn’t change this rule, you can still spread germs while wearing them. Not squeezing the avocado to see if it’s ripe is just one of the ways grocery shopping is changing after COVID.

Woman buying nail polish beauty product during pandemic with face maskMalik Evren/Getty Images

Sampling something you’d like to try before you buy

Testing out lipsticks, lotions, spice mixes, jellies, and other products before purchasing was already kind of gross but it was acceptable. Now, COVID-19 has made sampling downright dangerous, Parker says. “If a store is offering samples, don’t take it,” she says. “And if they’re not offering samples, don’t ask for one.” You certainly shouldn’t open up a container on your own to try something, she adds. No more walking samples is just one of the 20 ways city life could change forever after the pandemic.

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Paying with cash

It’s been well-established that all kinds of germs can travel on money and checks and many stores already have signs asking customers to only pay electronically. “Try to figure out a contactless way to pay as this is safer and more hygienic for everyone,” Parker says. You can use a credit or debit card, pay online, use a phone app to pay (like ApplePay), or other digital method. Even when things do go back to “normal,” make sure you’re using credit and not cash for these items.

Family shopping at the mall during COVID-19 pandemic. They wears a protective mask to protect from coronavirus COVID-19.kajakiki/Getty Images

Chatting up strangers

Being kind and friendly while in a store is still good etiquette but starting conversations with strangers isn’t, Parker says. “People like to talk and being friendly brings out the best in us but now is not the time to converse beyond pleasantries,” she says. First, masks can make it harder to hear, tempting people to pull them down to talk (a major no-no!). Plus, simply speaking increases the number of germs you spread, even with a mask on. “The rule now is that the friendly and caring thing to do is to keep to yourself,” she says. Follow these 14 etiquette rules when visiting friends during a pandemic.

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Trying on clothing

Most stores have closed their fitting rooms but that doesn’t stop some people from trying on shoes, purses, jewelry, hats, or even clothing while standing in the aisle. “Don’t do this. Yes, it means you have to go with the unreliable ‘hold the pants against your body’ method but that’s better than contaminating clothing for others,” Randall says. If fitting rooms are open, use a disinfectant wipe before and after using them. Using the dressing room is one of 12 things you shouldn’t do at reopened clothing stores.

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Complaining about inventory

It’s getting better but you’ll find that some retail stores still have limited inventory. This is frustrating but complaining about it won’t fix the supply chain. “You have the choice to complain, settle for what you can find in the store, or shop online,” Randall says. “Only two of those things will get you what you want.”

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Not respecting the 6-foot bubble

Pre-COVID—which feels like another lifetime but was, in fact, less than six months ago—the proper social distance was keeping a distance of arm’s length between people, Parker says. Now the new accepted social distance is a minimum of six feet apart, she says. “It’s not just a personal choice, it’s a safety issue, and people may feel physically threatened if you get within their six-foot bubble,” she says. This includes while browsing in the store and waiting in line.

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Ignoring the directional arrows

To try to minimize contact between customers, many stores have designated entrance and exit doors and have installed large directional signs and arrows so that you can only go through the store one way. “Pay attention to and follow the directions, even if it’s inconvenient,” Wagner says. This is also one of the new rules for shopping at big-box stores, like Walmart and Target.

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Wearing your mask under your nose or your chin

The Internet is full of confrontations between shoppers and employees or other people about wearing a mask in stores and if there’s one lesson to be learned from all of them, it’s that this is about so much more than a piece of fabric on your face, Wagner says. Wearing a mask has become a political, ideological, personal, and comfort issue, on top of being a public health mandate. The polite thing to do? “Always wear your mask and wear it properly,” she says. If you can’t do that, consider shopping online. Check out these photos that prove face masks have become the norm.

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Playing the “but my rights!” card

Stores are privately owned and as such, they are allowed to make rules specific to their property, and in most cases, your rights as a citizen do not trump those rules, Parker says. “I have witnessed many times when people get incredibly frustrated and angry when an employee asks them to follow the rules, whether that’s wearing a mask or leaving bags outside. They say that the store is taking away their right to choose for themselves,” she says. “You do have a choice, but the choice is whether or not to shop at that store, not to force an employee to do what you want.”

Front view of unhappy small boy with face mask at home.Halfpoint Images/Getty Images

Bringing small children

It may be necessary to sometimes bring your small children with you to get essentials at the grocery store but if you’re visiting a retail store, go at a time when someone else can watch your little ones, Wagner says. Children move around, touch things, take their masks off, and do other things that are unsafe in the store—not because they’re naughty but just because they’re children, she says. If you must bring your kids, keep them in a stroller and make sure they are closely supervised.

Shop owner showing new clothes collection to a customerLeoPatrizi/Getty Images

Confronting other customers

It can be infuriating to watch someone rudely flout the rules while you and the others in the store are all trying hard to keep everyone safe. It’s become commonplace to see confrontations between customers that get very heated or even physical over this issue, Randall says. “You can try discreetly approaching the offender and explain that the rules are for everyone’s safety but this is risky; they may agree or disagree or punch you in the face,” she says. The better move is to mind your own business or to find the manager and ask them to handle it, she says.

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Holding the door open for others

Handing people a basket, opening a door for them, helping them put a heavy load on a counter—all of these things are lovely gestures but are no longer considered polite these days, Parker says. “Today, these types of gestures are often perceived as uncomfortable and confusing, because they won’t want to offend you by not accepting the gesture and they don’t want to reciprocate it,” she says. Not everything has changed, like these 9 etiquette rules you still have to follow during COVID.

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.