How One Business Made a Mess of Masking

Two companies, Menards and Costco, were first out of the blocks in requiring that all customers and employees wear masks in early May due to the Coronavirus. Their stories are similar and yet distinct. While both suffered some hits to their reputation online by being early to requiring masks, Costco saw just a blip while Menards felt a more substantial negative impact.

Menards store entrance and mask policy signage. Photo via Toledo Blade.

The reasons for a business to implement strict masking hygiene for clients and staff have become increasingly clear. There are moral and ethical reasons; customers, despite some complainers, strongly prefer a rigorously enforced masking policy; and the business case is clear, there is significantly more economic upside to requiring masks with nearly 80% of consumers indicating either the same or a greater willingness to spend with a business that has a strict policy. 

Absent a vaccine for COVID-19 in the short term, there is an increasing likelihood of businesses being in the business of enforcing masking standards. 

As your business moves towards requiring both employees and customers to wear masks we think that listening to the voice of customers and avoiding some obvious pitfalls can make for a more successful transition to customer safety and comfort. But there are mistakes that can be made along that path and understanding what they are can make the transition easier.

8X The Negative Reviews

In my initial research looking at over 40,000 reviews at 9 different companies/sectors, it became obvious that the vast majority of complaints revolved around businesses either not implementing adequate mask requirements for customers and employees or not enforcing them adequately when they did. Over 99% of the complaints about masking fell into that category.

But I was curious why a business like HomeDepot would have 8 times the complaints per location as Walmart. That lead me to research Menards. a chain of home improvement stores with over 350 locations mainly in the midwest, as a possible point of comparison to Home Depot.

Menards had EIGHT TIMES as many complaints as Home Depot. What was going on?

In researching Menards reviews and the policies they reflected, there are lessons to be learned that can smooth any business’s path in this complicated environment.

Where Things Went Wrong

Initially, I suspected that this 8x increase in masking complaints was largely precipitated by Menards early implementation of a strict masking policy for customers on May 4th, 2020. Costco, another early business to to require masks of customers and employees only saw a 2X increase in mask complaints during that period.

Both Costco and Menards were open during the whole period when many other non-essential businesses were forced to close and both started requiring masks at the same time. 

During the April 11th through July 11th span that we examined, 24% of Menard’s 10,418 reviews were 1 and 2 star reviews .  While during the same period, Costco saw 14,127 reviews of which only 7% were negative during the same period. 

Menards saw their 90-day review average drop to 3.7 stars from their historical average of 4.2. The rating drop is large in itself and equally important is that it dropped below the critical range that consumers trust, below a 4.0 rating.

Costco, on the other hand, dropped from 4.6 to 4.5 during the same period. This one point drop is consistent with the drop we saw in most national brands in our earlier research on customer attitudes to covid hygiene.

You can see in the Menards review aggregate summary that overall review ratings dropped across the board.

Pre-Covid Reviews

Menards’ lifetime rating summary prior to Covid

Post-Covid Reviews

Menards’ 90 day post-Covid ratings summary

A quick search of the Menards’ review corpus indicated that they had managed to get almost 5x as many mask related complaints as Costco. Menards suffered many of the same complaints about hypocrisy and even enforcement that I had seen in my earlier analysis of Home Depot, Walmart and Dominoes. They were however, in addition, also receiving a significant number of anti-mask complaints as well as complaints on many other fronts.

To start the investigation into understanding the details of the reputation hit, we explored their historical Insights report in GatherUp. This report provides sentiment analysis around the verbiage in their reviews as opposed to the ratings. It provides specific topical trends of what consumers liked and disliked about the company based on language sentiment.

Menards, as a brand and one that offers very low prices and rebates, historically has been well received in their market. Folks appreciated their prices, deals, and staff. Prior to COVID, even the negative sentiments did not drop to basement bottom levels.

Consumers noted that pricing, rebates, staff place AND the brand were all positives

But a quick look at the sentiment of their review corpus for the 90 day period from April 11th until July 11th indicated that masking certainly was playing a large role in their review score decline.

But Menards Insights report showed that the top 10 sentiments surfaced by our natural language processing were all negative, something I had never before seen. Even the brand sentiment had dropped and it became clear to us that problems went beyond just the masking issue.

Note that even the brand sentiment has fallen into negative territory for these folks

1-star Google review from Alex F.
Don’t bother going here.  Associates not required to wear masks but customers are required?  Several associates, including Jake, either not wearing a mask or wearing it improperly.  Wanted a grill, ordered off of Amazon cheaper and with less hypocrisy. Sign not posted very well, associates very confrontational.  Nobody practicing “social distancing”  Please close this store if you are afraid of the virus!I’ll never come back, congrats!PS go to Lowe’s, no mask rule there.”

While the mask requirement was having an impact on both Menards and Costco, clearly something beyond inconsistent enforcement and the act of requiring masks were having large impacts for Menards.  Why was Menards an outlier that had moved so far beyond both Home Depot AND Costco in terms of generating negative reviews?

We embarked on a two pronged approach to understanding the Menards situation; examining their reviews globally and individually AND running a large scale national consumer survey to help us understand how much of the Menard’s story was demographically related. 

Menards home improvement super stores are focused in the midwest but stretch from West Virginia to Wyoming and from the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to Kentucky. Their target demographic is lower middle income men in the DIY category in the 35 to 45 age range. 

That demographic certainly put Menards at a disadvantage. In our survey of consumer attitudes towards masking and its impact on spending we found that men, people under 45 and folks from the Midwest were all more likely to stop doing business or spend less with a business that strictly enforced masking. And in Menards case, of their 842 mask complaints 76% were written by men*.

Unlike my previous sample of reviews from leading US Brands, almost 3% of all Menards’ reviews left during the period were rabidly anti-mask. And some of them were real “corkers”:

1-star Google review from Rob V.
Chinese Communist store making people buy Chinese masks for a dollar, otherwise are not allowed to shop inside.

1-star Google review from Phillip J.
I was denied service because I wouldn’t wear their socialist mask.  I will never ever shop at Menards ever again.

What is it with men?*

But the fact that Menards was seeing 5 times as many mask complaints and 3.5 as many more complaints over all than Costco pointed to the fact that more was going on than could be predicted by the 6-10% differences in their demographic profiles. And an analysis of their reviews helped me understand the other issues at play. 

I started reading the reviews that came in during the post covid period of April 11th to July 11th and certain issues beyond simple masking became obvious.

Based on the reviews I was reading, I used GatherUp to identify, via our “auto-tag” feature, reviews around the topics of children being banned from the store, rude employees, health issues related to masking and finally their policy to require a mask purchase if you didn’t have one.

retail review content COVID masks
You can see the keywords associated with each tag, Our auto-tagging function would allow us to search, sort, count and categorize reviews with any of the noted keywords.

All of these tags, each representing a potential issue for Menards, seem to pile in on top of the mask complaints.  And all fell not just into negative territory but to the lowest levels of sentiment, well below their review average for the period and well below the general sentiment. We had found our answers. Let’s share some examples.

A Failure To Communicate

When implementing a policy like requiring masks a company needs to over-communicate. They need to relay the expectations and obligations of all involved. Menards did not seem to properly communicate the new policy.

1-star Google review from April H.
We are new to Nebraska and are buying a home. We needed a new washer and dryer etc for the home. A work colleague suggested that we try Menards first bc they usually are cheaper.  We went last Friday just to check it out and get almost past the desk past the doors and a worker yelled very loudly at us and everyone stopped and looked at us. Saying “Do you not have a mask?” I say No do we need one? And they say yes. So we just turned around and left. Outside the doors, I stopped and looked all over and there are NO Sign anywhere posted saying you’re required to wear a mask. We also looked all over the front of the building still nothing!! There was absolutely no need to be rude and hateful and yell and embarrass us in front of everyone. We don’t mind wearing a mask. Thats not the issue. But we can’t be psychic that one is required if it’s not posted.

Selling Masks Is A No Sale For Reputation

Unlike Costco, which initially gave away free masks, Menards insisted on charging $1 for a mask. Making a mask available at a low price is not a terrible thing in itself but the act was seen as profiting off suffering and its immediate implementation did not give consumers time to understand the new rules. During times of crisis and stress absorbing the cost of the mask is a cheap way to be perceived as gracious and understood as willing to educate. Charging for it, had the opposite affect:

2-Star Google review from Alicia R.
“I love this store, however they currently want to require you to wear a mask, which is not really my issue…..they want you to purchase it. Im walking in to spend well over $1000 today for a company I work for…..not even for myself….. and you want me to buy a mask? What great customer service. I wonder how much money they’re making off of this pandemic. Not cool menards….

1-star Google review from Ricky R.
They could put it on their website that you have to wear a mask there. Drove clear to lancaster  to find out i couldn’t get in without one. I thought they would give me one NO they will sell you one. Another way for them to make money thats ok i went to lowes and spent my $ 700.oo  Didn’t get treated like I have a disease there.”

The Problems With Front Line Staff Being Enforcers

Consistently and with a common voice, consumers felt that the front line employees were rude and heavy handed. Unlike Costco where mask issues were quickly delegated to better trained staff, it appears that Menards expected minimum wage staff to both educate and enforce around their new masking requirements. This is expecting a lot and given the intense stress of the moment more than they should or could handle. 

I spoke with one customer who attempted to go into Menards, having forgotten their mask and he was physically shoved back out of the store. Here is what he told me:

“I went to Menards during the quarantine to pick up an air filter. When I got out of the car, I saw that there was a sign stating no kids were allowed in the store. I was alone, so I went towards the front door. “

I was met by an employee who asked if I had a face mask, I said No but stated that I would buy one in the store… She stated that I couldn’t come into the store, told me I had to leave, she grabbed my shoulders and she physically turned me around.

The whole thing caught me off-guard. I didn’t expect that kind of reaction, and I certainly wasn’t happy about the way she treated me. So I left and got what I needed from Home Depot. I’m not a regular at Menards. That said, no other business treated me this way during the quarantine.

We saw similar sentiment, time and again in the Menard’s reviews:

1-star Google review from Jim B.
Went to Menards on Fathers Day. Security at the door was very rude. Rudely told us we could not enter the store without masks and we can buy one if we wanted to enter the store. Went back to our vehicle and got the masks. Went back into the store and said we now have masks on. He then mumbled something under his breath. We asked him what he said and he told us if we didn’t want to wear a mask we should go to another store.  Told management and the guy acted as if he didn’t want to hear it. All I can say is that we will be doing our shopping at Home Depot and or Lowes.

Too Many Policy Changes at Once

It is not clear the logic, perhaps it was safety and perhaps it was to minimize shopper density but in the same timeframe Menards prohibited children under 16 from entering the store at all. With kids at home due to school closings and some shoppers being single parents, this presented a huge issue that managed to offend a large number of customers.  

1-star Google review from Cassie B.
My daughter and I went into menards both wearing masks and then we’re rudely kicked out of being yelled at for my daughter not being 16. So concerned with safety yet ok leaving children alone in cars. Not returning. Lowe’s has now has a new customer.

1-star Google review From Nicole L.
During Covid-19 I went there to fix my toilet with my daughter and was told no kids allowed. We had our face masks on and planned to run in and out. I’m a single parent, to fix my toilet I had to leave my 9 year old little girl in the car. Unacceptable. I couldn’t believe it.

Rules Are For Fools (at least some times)

Rules make all sorts of sense as a way to get consistent behavior across a large number of employees and locations. But a business needs to understand that while generally useful, their rigid and unforgiving enforcement particularly in the face of health related issues can be construed as overbearing and inappropriate. It may even be illegal in certain circumstances. In NY State, for example, those with health conditions that prevent a mask from being worn, are exempted from the mask wearing rule when entering a store. 

1-star Google review from Wendy A.
Today I was rudely told to leave the store in front of other customers by 4/5 people and one of them ran from behind the return desk got in my face told me to leave because I did not have a mask on. I told her that I cannot wear a mask because of medical reasons and I did not have to tell them why because of the HIPA law. She continued the raise her voice at me and I asked her to shut up. She followed me and told me she did not have to shut up. “ 

1-star Google review from Johny R.
Very disappointed that I was asked to wear a mask even though I have a medical condition which prevents me from wearing a mask. Therefore I was not allowed entry into the store I will be following a complaint with ADA. It states in the guidelines that people may be exempt from wearing a mask that has a medical condition but obviously you cannot follow the rules.

What Can We Learn From This Mask Mess?

Menards made several tactical errors in their implementation that are instructive and led to a literal pile on in their reviews. While this article centers on mask requirements, it’s easy to see these missteps applying to any policy or experience change for a business.

  • Too many policy changes at once
  • Poor communication around these policy changes
  • Heavy-handed and ill-conceived enforcement
  • Initially requiring an additional mask purchase
  • Disregarding the legitimate health issues of some customers

We have the benefit of hindsight on what must have been a very stressful situation for Menards and their employees. Clearly it was for their customers as well.

But here are some ideas for your own plan:

  • These changes are hard for people, communicate early and communicate them often
  • Provide some sort of transitional educational period like Costco where you offer free masks
  • Be a little flexible and recognize that a few customers legitimately can’t wear a mask
  • Make accommodation for parents with children that is not so onerous
  • Put in place a plan to monitor customer sentiment and respond quickly before things get out of hand

Where Do We Go From Here?

Clearly the question of masking has become a flash point. But as Menards and Costco established a path, we can watch and learn from what they have done. We think that it is only a matter of time before most businesses and governments require masking in public spaces.

1-star Google review from Blake S.
Requiring people to wear masks or they’re not allowed to enter your store sounds like a communist country to me.  You just lost a customer for life. Well good think Home Depot is next door.

Many Menards shoppers threatened to take their business elsewhere. Meanwhile Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Home Depot and Kohl’s are all now requiring, not just requesting, that customers wear masks. While enforcement is still erratic they are helping prepare customers for a broader and more consistent requirement.

As the pandemic persists, and more and more business enforce masking, I believe that some of the anti-maskers will come to realize that if they want to buy something, they will have to wear a mask. As Covid spreads they will hopefully realize that wearing a mask isn’t a communist plot, but rather a communal effort to protect your neighbor. 

As a country we are slowly lurching toward a social solution to a physical problem. We are experiencing pains and embarrassment along the way as we each come to the conclusion about masking in our own time.

Unless a vaccine happens tomorrow then there seems to me a certain inevitability to masking. It took almost 10 years for seat belts to become mandatory in every state. It was messy and slow. We are seeing the social agreement around masking, in all of its messiness, taking place before our eyes, in a matter of months. 

And given the nature of federal behavior on this issue, responsibility for enforcement will fall to business. If that turns out to be the case, it makes more sense for businesses to make this move smartly and avoid some obvious pitfalls.


A note on methodology: To answer these questions and hopefully a few more, we brought 100 Menards locations from around the Midwest and an equal number of Costco locations spread around the United States into GatherUp. We loaded all previous reviews but paid special attention to the reviews provided during the April 11 – July 11 timeframe as they compared to prior periods. Like in our previous study, we ignored reviews in the 3/11 through 4/11 timeframe to minimize the impact of the early covid days.

*This is a very cool API that can be integrated with Google sheets to analyze likely gender by name. You only get 500 free and then you will need a plan for more.

* This is a rhetorical question to which there is no good answer. 🙂

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