Retailers act to protect seniors from coronavirus shopping chaos and contamination

Photo: @Gravityx9 via Twenty20
Mar 17, 2020
Matthew Stern

Scenes of panic buying in grocery stores have become a fixture of daily life in the midst of the global coronavirus outbreak. For the elderly, navigating such instances can be uncomfortable, difficult and even dangerous. Recognizing this, grocers in Australia and Dollar General in the U.S. have begun setting aside specific times to cater to the needs of seniors and those with physical disabilities.

Woolworths and some IGA locations are restricting shopping exclusively to the elderly and those with disabilities on Tuesday through Friday of this week between the hours of 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., according to Australian news outlet 10 Daily. The chain did not specify if the hours will be adopted week-over-week or for how long into the future.

Dollar General announced yesterday that it is looking to set aside the first hour of each day for seniors to shop in its stores.

The retailer issued a statement explaining its rationale: “Dollar General is strongly encouraging that the first hour of operations each day be dedicated solely for the shopping needs of senior customers, who are one of the groups most vulnerable to the COVID-19 coronavirus. In keeping with the Company’s mission of Serving Others, Dollar General wants to provide these at-risk customers with the ability to purchase the items they need and want at the beginning of each day to avoid busier and more crowded shopping periods. Other customers are encouraged to plan their shopping trips around this window of time to allow the most susceptible customers in our communities the ability to shop during the first hour that stores are open.”

Governments worldwide have advised against panic buying and excessive stockpiling as the coronavirus pandemic has spiraled from a regional outbreak to a global catastrophe impacting 162 countries.

People have been panic buying such products as soap and hand sanitizer due to their role in potentially preventing infection from the virus, privately stockpiling unnecessarily large quantities while others have to go without.

Other products such as toilet paper and paper towels have disappeared from grocery store shelves over the past few days despite the lack of a direct relationship to the symptoms associated with the COVID-19 infection.

Retailers have had to curb and limit the purchase of toilet paper and other items. Experts ascribe the impulse to purchase such items as arising, not just from fear of contagion, but from a lack of clear guidance from the government about what will be necessary in the coming weeks or months.

The elderly not only face a danger in navigating crowded stores, but going out to shop in large crowds could be putting themselves at a greater risk of severe illness or death from the disease than younger groups.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should other American retailers set aside specific hours for the elderly and disabled to shop? How else might grocers approach the unique problems facing susceptible and disadvantaged populations during the coronavirus outbreak?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"I think when we come out of this, people will remember the companies that did everything they could."
"I applaud and admire retailers who are implementing this type of strategy. Best in class retailers are usually innovative and put their customers first."
"Makes total sense. It’s more important than ever that we turn towards each other, and not against each other."

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30 Comments on "Retailers act to protect seniors from coronavirus shopping chaos and contamination"

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Mark Ryski

We let people who need assistance get on planes first, why not let people who need extra help shop first? This makes perfect sense and it’s just the right thing to do. Grocery stores will become the frontline as the pandemic expands. I encourage grocery retailers to bolster their security, enhance replenishment procedures and manage check-out. Grocery stores are going to be dealing with an increase in demand like they have never seen and they need to take action now.

Michael La Kier

The bottom line? We need to protect those at most risk in our society; today’s COVID-19 infected world calls for new ways of doing business. Early shopping for seniors has been a call for a while now and it makes sense as this is when the stores are at their cleanest and best stocked for those who need it (perhaps most). We’re all in this together, setting aside a few hours a few days per week does not seem to be asking too much of our society.

Nikki Baird
In my neighborhood (and, it seems, many others around the country), this is already happening. After seeing stories of elderly people crying in the parking lots of grocery stores because they’re afraid to go in, not only have stores responded by having morning hours exclusively for those at greater risk from the virus (which gives them first pick of essentials before the hoarders rush in), but younger generations in the neighborhood have stepped up to be personal shoppers so that at-risk people don’t even have to leave their homes. While several retailers here offer home delivery, those services have been overwhelmed so even volunteers doing the shopping for their neighbors have made a difference. There’s only so much that retailers can do – the pressure is on CPG and grocery, leaving a lot of other retailers with completely closed stores and real questions about what to do next or when they can do anything at all. I think when we come out of this, people will remember the companies that did everything they could —… Read more »
Bob Phibbs

Without leadership at the top telling people specific steps to take to stop the spread, it falls to retailers to help in any way they can. The safety net of decades ago that the elderly grew up with for many is gone, this is a step in the right direction. But all the closings of stores are designed to protect these at-risk individuals. Is there a way groceries could be brought to them so they didn’t even have to come out? My guess is that is the next step. And with the situation evolving by the hour, I expect that approach to have widespread adoption.

Richard Hernandez

Very good idea — it allows those more at risk to get their shopping done without crowds and people being too close. Retailers should make sure that there is help available to assist the customers. I hope more retailers adopt this process.

Shep Hyken

Having specific store hours for the elderly and disabled is something being recommended by the experts. These people are most at risk. Keeping the shopping crowd down to a minimum at designated times for these higher-risk customers shows care and compassion.

Having groceries delivered or pre-ordered (BOPIS) is an obvious step toward minimizing risk. Many people don’t use these options for the simple reason that over their entire lives they have shopped by going to the store, walking the aisles and checking out with a cashier. Maybe we teach them and get them comfortable with a new way to shop – a more convenient and, in these unique times, healthier way to shop.

Heidi Sax

In the case of Woolworths of Australia, the move was made after they had to halt delivery in Victoria and pick-up in stores across the country. They also cited the competitive shopping environment in stores, which wasn’t navigable for the elderly and people with disabilities. For those who fit into those categories and rely on that grocer, this is the best and most responsible thing to do.

Jeff Sward

Hats off to my local grocery store, Stop & Shop. They announced yesterday that they are now open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. for senior shopping. This is after curtailing regular hours to deal with restocking issues. We are lucky in that we don’t have any confirmed cases of the virus locally, but we can all appreciate the tremendous efforts by everyone to flatten the curve. Gotta figure out the right combination of social distancing AND community effort.

Jeff Weidauer

Panic buying reveals the worst side of human nature – this is like Black Friday but with more at stake. The current situation requires more than an hour in the morning for the safety of elders – that’s just optics. How about offering personal shopping services, or call-in and pick-up? Retailers need to think bigger and longer-term.

Suresh Chaganti
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
1 year 1 month ago

It is a sensible thing to do. I have been seeing volunteers helping deliver groceries to seniors. I expect grocery delivery services will be offered free for seniors for a period of time.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

This is a no-brainer and should be adopted by all retailers. It shows respect for our senior citizens, especially in this challenging time. Plus it supports the White House guidelines that “urge older people to stay at home altogether.” Not to mention that seniors are up at the crack of dawn anyway.

Georganne Bender

Absolutely necessary and a smart move.

Neil Saunders

Yes, all American retailers should do whatever they can to help the elderly and vulnerable. These are the people who are least able to get what they need in times of panic and who are at greatest risk from this virus. We must all look after ourselves, but we must also care about and assist those who find it harder to do the same.

Gene Detroyer

This is what an advanced society does. Stop & Shop has already announced they are doing this. They will have seniors only for the first two hours each day. For the seniors there’s no fighting a crowd, appropriate social distance, a chance to get what they need off the shelf before the greedy attack and wipe out what each of us NEEDS.

Andrew Blatherwick

If retailers really want to help the older members of society, they should consider dropping the minimum spend for home delivery rather than make large numbers of old people gather together and at a time when it is very early for them to get out. Older people take longer to get going in the morning and rather than treating them as special this is treating them as second class citizens. It is true that many older people do not have the ability to go online and place an order but neighbors can help with this if the facility were there.

Ananda Chakravarty

America’s business community has always held together and offered up services to support those less able during times of crisis. Our seniors, at-risk and disabled community (including veterans) should have special privileges to help them make it through this ordeal. Beyond just setting hours, retailers should offer free delivery services and curbside pickup, making sure those involved are following strict sanitary protocol. There can be assistance provided at the store. And most importantly, sterilizing/disinfecting facilities. Retailers need to commit to these steps for peace of mind and communicate their actions to the elderly community.

Zach Zalowitz

Makes total sense. It’s more important than ever that we turn towards each other, and not against each other. There should also be restrictions on order quantities, both physical and digital, for specific items that are in high demand!

Dave Bruno

Doing anything we can do to be kind to people is incredibly important right now. Fear brings out the worst in people, and giving vulnerable people a chance to shop and stock up before the crowds of younger people arrive is a great way to help everyone fare better. My NextDoor timeline is full of people offering to do the shopping for people who shouldn’t leave home. It’s heartwarming and encouraging – and an excellent counterpoint to the hoarding and selfishness displayed by so many others. Retailers that help minimize the selfishness and help those hurt by the selfishness of others are to be commended. I hope and believe that after things calm down that shoppers will reward retailers that show kindness, compassion and empathy to people in these trying days.

Mark Ryski

Excellent points Dave. In Canada, there’s a growing movement called “caremongering,” where people find ways to help others in any way they can through these challenging times — I think the whole world could benefit from caremongering.

Dick Seesel

Early hours for senior shopping make sense, and so should “staffing up” to help those customers navigate the store more easily. It’s an unfortunate reality that the customers most in need of BOPIS (with pickup outside the store) or home delivery may be the least tech-savvy among us.

Steve Dennis

One of the things I talk about in my forthcoming book — “Remarkable Retail: How to Win & Keep Customers in the Age of Digital Disruption” — is the need to go beyond merely being customer-centric to being “human-centered.” A big part of this is being more personalized, but it is also about bringing more empathy to the customer experience: Retail with soul.

This is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

Stephen Rector

Yes, absolutely. Where a company can help, they should do so in a situation like this – no questions asked.

Peter Charness

It is good to see industry step into the void with rational, problem solving new practices. This will build tremendous loyalty afterwards.

Paul Conley

This may be the loveliest gesture I have ever seen from the retail world. I’m proud to be part of such an industry.

Brent Biddulph

As a former member of the “grocery club,” makes me proud to see the tradition of taking care of customers in innovative (even, low-tech) ways still remains. Grocers are integral partners with their local communities, are visited more often by consumers than any other retail segment, are supported by CPG partners in arguably the most efficient supply chains in the world, are no strangers to being on the front lines during catastrophic events, and many of them essential to their communities for over a century here in the US.

James Tenser

We honor our elders by providing them with safe access to groceries and household necessities. Limiting elder shopping to just a couple of morning hours may not be entirely practical for all, however. Drive-up services can be made available at any day-part, leveraging existing click & collect fulfillment capabilities. Supermarkets should leverage those skills to include a “call & collect” option for the digitally challenged. Set up those 800 numbers now! Call center companies will jump at the opportunity.

For older folks in city apartments and anyone who doesn’t drive to the supermarket, delivery services will be essential. Wherever possible, retailers should waive fees for this — it’s a meaningful accommodation that will ensure future loyalty. Just be sure to manage timing expectations.

I also favor those temporary transaction limits on “panic-buy” items like TP, sanitizer and bottled water. Make sure there are wipes available at the front door for shopping cart handles. And clean those PIN pads at the ATM frequently! Everybody touches them.