Should grocers close their doors to customers for safety’s sake?

Discussion
Photo: @macbeth1208 via Twenty20
Apr 23, 2020
Matthew Stern

It is critical that grocery stores remain open during the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that they draw crowds, however, also makes them a significant point of potential transmission for the novel coronavirus, putting customers and especially staff at risk. This has led some to suggest that it is time for all grocers to close their store doors to customers.

Citing the deaths of dozens of people working in grocery stores from COVID-19, medical experts, union leaders and small grocers have begun to argue that the safest policy is keeping customers out of the stores entirely, according to CNN. Mark Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said that 85 percent of customers are still failing to social distance within stores. Mr. Perrone pointed to careless customers as the biggest threat to the health of grocery store workers.

The coronavirus pandemic took a horrifying turn in the U.S. in late March and early April when reports of workers succumbing to COVID-19 began to hit the news.

Turning all grocers into “dark stores” with curbside pickup and delivery as the only shopping options would drastically reduce the number of people coming into contact with one another during shopping trips but, importantly, would prevent store staff from having to encounter countless customers over the duration of their shifts.

Such a move could also increase the speed and efficiency with which shoppers for third-party delivery companies pick groceries, allowing them to get in and out of stores more quickly.

Grocery stores have already taken steps to reduce the number of customers in-store at any given time to prevent the spread of coronavirus and to improve BOPIS efficiency.

Last month, for instance, a Kroger store in Cincinnati converted to pick-up only to better meet the surging online order demand. This month, Amazon.com closed its Bryant Park Whole Foods location in Manhattan to public foot traffic to allow the store to focus entirely on online orders. Other large Manhattan Whole Foods locations, however, remain open to the public.

Other chains have taken the opposite approach. Cub Foods announced it would keep 11 stores in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area open 24 hours a day, a move that could relieve crowding.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think more supermarkets will convert to pickup and delivery-only operations in an effort to protect associates and customers?  Is it possible for grocery stores to operate like this at scale and how might they mitigate any negative effects of closing stores to customers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"There are ways to expand options and keep the tills ringing without going out on a limb."
"The most sensible solution being tried by some grocers is to limit the number of customers in the store at one time. All shoppers must wear masks or they do not enter."
"Grocers that implement social-distancing policy, cart sanitation, and limitations on foot traffic, will not only protect their customers but they may win in the market..."

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46 Comments on "Should grocers close their doors to customers for safety’s sake?"


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Art Suriano
Guest

I think the next move we are going to see is the drastic differences between the states. Here on the East Coast, we still see a higher number of cases and deaths daily. That is not the same for states like Kentucky and South Carolina. So I would expect there now to be a shift with some states increasing the social distancing practices like some supermarkets closing entirely while other states begin to relax some of their rules. The problem here is that no one knows what’s right or what’s best. And as we listen to the debate daily between politicians and experts as to what we should or should or not do, everyone is getting confused and frustrated. Many argue we have passed the peak and, if so, then hopefully over the next couple of weeks all the numbers will begin a decline. If that happens, rather than grocers worrying about closing their stores entirely, we could be seeing strategies for how to reopen.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

I don’t think it’s that no one knows what’s right or what’s best. It’s that what is right and best for medical reasons is at odds with what’s best for financial reasons. Close grocery stores but open entire states (Georgia) and cities (Las Vegas)? The willful ignoring of scientific data by some politicians is what is going to create the biggest long term expense — loss of life and a prolonged disruption of any return to some kind of new normal.

Art Suriano
Guest

Jeff, that was my point in broad terms. Medically, we are told there is a 98 percent or higher recovery rate while at the same time we are told how dangerous contracting the virus could be. Financially, we are told this will lead us to the worst recession since the Great Depression and the next sentence we hear from someone else is how we will bounce back in a few months. If that’s not confusing and frustrating, I don’t know what is. It depends on who a person listens to and what you believe.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Yep … agreed. I’m sitting here watching a webcast on lessons learned during the ongoing recovery in China. The overwhelming aspect of executing the re-opening = Safety, Safety, Safety.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

If grocers have safe protocols in place to protect shoppers and workers, they should stay open. This involves everything from sanitized carts and touch screens to mandated masks, and from directional signing to distancing barriers.

My purely anecdotal sense right now (from two in-store visits last weekend and from online pickup dates available in the next day or so at two local supermarkets) is that the panic buying is starting to subside. While I shopped during “senior hours,” I saw reasonably full shelves and an orderly amount of store traffic.

If these kinds of manageable conditions become more widespread, there is no reason for most supermarkets to shut their doors as long as they observe “safety first.”

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

When I say “mandated masks,” I mean among the store associates too, not just the customers. I would have been happier at one of those store visits if the associate watching over the self-checkout lane had been wearing a mask herself. Safety is a two-way street.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
11 months 23 days ago

Only yesterday we discussed Cubs Foods opening 24/7. Obviously extremes don’t help. If a few people at facility got infected, they need to close down for a day or two to clean and disinfect before opening again. A Walgreens and a large ethnic grocery store in my neighborhood did the same.

In most cases they have it right. Reduced hours, sanitized carts, crowd control, one way aisles. Most importantly, ensure staff have enough time and space to work on safety and cleanliness.

Pickup-only may be required based on location, but I suspect it will be left for individual chains to decide.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

No, this is a ridiculous suggestion.

First, there is no way that stores could cope with the volumes needed to serve all customers.

Second, not everyone has access to the right technology or the knowledge of that technology to place orders.

Third, the above two points would likely lead to panic and possibly protests.

Naturally, grocery stores should take precautions like limiting customers in the store at any one time, protecting staff, and so forth. But the current restrictions we have go far enough. We don’t need to add to them further at this point.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I agree. If this were announced the panic buying we saw earlier would pale in comparison to what would happen. While many of us have the ability to use online functionality to place an order and pay for it, there is a huge number of people who don’t. How would they survive?

Rick Moss
Staff

Very much in agreement, Neil. Even the mighty Amazon is struggling mightily to keep up with online grocery orders. Getting delivery slots from Whole Foods in NYC or from other grocers via Instacart is like trying to nab Springsteen concert tickets. If government were to mandate that stores close down to shoppers, many people would go without food. Local governments should work out appropriate guidelines and restrictions to assure the safety of workers, and retailers should be given the freedom to devise their own strategies. That way, consumers will continue to have a variety of options.

Mark Heckman
BrainTrust

Well stated Neil. Kroger and others are leading the way to find ways to keep shoppers and associates safe as we ride out the pandemic. If you want to see panic hit the streets and a resumption of hoarding, just mentioning supermarkets MAY close. That will do the trick. With that said, if you can use curbside pick-up — I encourage you to do so. If not, please wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and be mindful of keeping your distance when shopping. I have nothing but admiration for the great people that come to work in our retail stores everyday!

David Naumann
BrainTrust
David Naumann
CEO and President, Cogent Creative Consulting
11 months 23 days ago

Some larger chains have the resources to convert some stores to pick-up and delivery only, however, it is not feasible for small independent grocers. Many small grocers may not have online ordering capabilities yet and hiring the staff to pick all orders is cost prohibitive.

Unless mandated by local governments, I don’t think many grocers will prevent customers from entering stores. That said, there are a lot of other things grocery stores should be doing during the pandemic, like requiring all staff and customers to wear face masks and maybe even gloves. I have been in grocery stores and many of the staff are not wearing masks and about 25 percent of customers are not wearing masks. We all need to take this seriously.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

As appealing as pickup-only processes sound, most grocers simply do not have the infrastructure to make it happen. Staffing would have to ratchet upward. Costs would increase sharply. Customers would have to be satisfied with the green bananas they got, not the yellow bananas they wanted. I don’t see it.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

No they shouldn’t convert – but I have no problem with them instituting customer count limits at any one time and requiring customers to wear masks. Trader Joe’s by me is doing this and spraying your hands with sanitizer before you enter – if you don’t like it, they are happy to nicely decline to let you in.

Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust

Converting to pick-up only is easier said than done. It requires the build-out of an e-commerce platform unless stores are willing to take phone orders. I suggest that some small-to-medium-sized operators try this as an augmentation strategy. A store in my area enjoys great loyalty within the community but has stuck to the shop-in-store model. The store manager makes a point of stocking all kinds of specialty items that are probably parked on the shelves as traffic dwindles to those seeking staples. Were they to offer phone orders with touchless pickup for these items, I would load up and cut out a mask-wearing jaunt to Whole Foods miles away. Surely I’m not alone. Another local medium-sized chain partners with Instacart for same-day delivery. There are ways to expand options and keep the tills ringing without going out on a limb.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Retailers must insist that all customers wear masks and gloves and anyone found not following guidelines including social distancing should be escorted out of the store. Period. I am amazed how many people are just plain oblivious to how close they are getting to others in the aisles. If this does not change, stores will have no choice but to go to pick up only. Grocery workers deserve it!

George Anderson
Staff

I think one of the downsides to shoppers being required to wear masks is that people, consciously or not, seem to think they no longer need to be as careful about social distancing in stores. This past weekend at a Whole Foods in New Jersey, I stood well back and watched customers get within a couple of feet of one another as they shopped the produce aisle. A month back when we weren’t wearing masks, people seemed to be very aware of maintaining six-feet of separation.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

My favorite quote states, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes). The face of grocery will change forever as a result of this pandemic. And honestly, it’s about time that out of necessity new approaches are introduced to care for associates, invite shoppers into a safe environment, manage “essential” inventory in an entirely reinvented way and, yes, incorporate technology as part of the solution. However, I disagree that online-only with curbside pickup will become the replacement for traditional grocery operations. Could I envision an innovative format to the likes of which we have never seen? Absolutely. I believe the best is yet to come!