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Just under a week since our President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a state of disaster and called on us as South Africans to protect our beloved country and its people, we are reflecting on what has been successful at our shopping centres, and how we can further evolve to protect our customers, staff and communities.

At the outset it is imperative to give credit to our phenomenal Operations, Marketing and Centre Management teams on site at the 27 malls within the Exemplar and MPD portfolio.

We are only as strong as the weakest link and never before has this rung as true as it does in this time of crisis.

We have been inspired beyond belief by the courage, dedication and cohesion with which our teams have set about protecting the 10 to 15 million shoppers that visit our portfolio of township and rural shopping centres monthly – most of whom remain the most vulnerable of our society.

Within the first week of March we installed a visible social distancing campaign at all our sites – this included vinyl floor stickers demarcating the correct distance to keep, awareness posters and promoters on site to educate our customers of the importance of keeping their distance from each other.

As the National Lockdown loomed closer, we noticed a massive increase in numbers to our stores and the need for further measures to keep our customers adequately separated. To that end, we implemented ‘trolley spacing’ using shopping trolleys to space the queues – perhaps one of the most successful initiatives taken to date.

All trolleys were stationed at the pedestrian entrances of the properties (stringent hygiene processes are in place to clean these after each use) and customers take one before joining a queue, thus ensuring everyone stands a minimum of a ‘trolley space’ apart. For any stores looking for a quick and efficient way to ensure social distancing, this is a great place to start.

Since the unprecedented number of customers continued to rise, we took a decision to shut our malls to all vehicular traffic. This was to ensure improved access control and to control the population density within the properties themselves, where we have control, rather than outside on the streets, where we do not.

We have also begun implementing “S-Queues” (a switchback queuing system) across our parking lots. This sees each customer being allocated a spot on the markings of each parking bay, proving effective in staggering our customers and further increasing social distancing in the queues.

Additional successful actions that may be useful to our peers in the industry include minimising the number of ‘touch points’ for those in the queues. We have removed all mall furniture to reduce dwell time and escalators and lifts have all been closed off, as have non-trading areas of the malls in an attempt to minimise the potential of any exposure to Covid-19.

Already stringent hygiene measures such as hand sanitising at all entrances with additional daily deep cleaning of all high traffic areas have further increased as we attempt to help #flattenthecurve.

In the face of social grant pay-outs this week, our most vulnerable customers remain our highest concern. On pension payout day, Monday 30 March, we are restricting access to all shoppers under the age of 65 from 7am until 10am. We have made additional security budget available to assist the elderly and disabled during this time and have initiatives in place to separate the elderly from the youth post 10am.

We want to keep the elderly in our community as protected as possible and call on all tenants, stakeholders and leadership to implement this initiative at as many sites as possible.

As we brace ourselves for the uncertainty that lies ahead, we are confident in our ability to read the landscape and rapidly adapt to any change in order to evolve for the needs of our customers and our country. We call on all retail industry leaders to do the same.

These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures. Think on your feet, keep your communication channels open and adapt wherever you need to … and share your learnings. We are all in this together and we should be working as such.

Now is not the time to question or wonder, but rather the time to take decisive and deliberate action – it is the time for innovation, intervention and inspiration.

Undoubtedly, it is also the time for collaboration, for never before in our democracy has the need been stronger for our nation to stand together (a safe distance apart).

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