The risk of being a victim of COVID-19 is scary, it’s unnerving and in some cases, it’s life threatening. But grocers and other food retailers across the country want you to know: They have your backs.
“The initial rush of consumers wanting to overbuy obviously impacted the supply chain right off the back, once this started to escalate. You saw some shelves being cleared out,” says Dave Heylen, Vice President of Communications for the California Grocers Association. “Yet, there is no need for consumers to overbuy. We have been told up and down the line that there is plentiful food.”
Heylen pointed out that manufacturing plants are working overtime to produce food products, but challenges remain in the distribution system.
“The challenge is that, as an industry, we’ve become so efficient in our distribution system. The system works perfect when everything is normal. But when there is an onrush of goods like we experienced, either wholesalers or companies large enough to have their own distribution centers have not been able to replenish quickly enough,” said Heylen.
Unlike years where there has been a wildfire or a disaster in one part of the country, COVID-19 is nationwide.
“This is a unique situation in that the whole country is impacted at the same time,” adds Heylen, limiting the ability to move goods from a resource rich area to another. “When stores are getting cleared out in the early morning, there simply aren’t enough trucks to bring in more orders and restock,” he adds.
However, he says the system is catching up, but not at 100%. “You are still going to see some items in very limited supply or maybe not in supply at all. But the other key is that there is not shortage. It’s more of a distribution challenge. It’s about getting restocked and getting those products to the store.
In order to drive the point home that overbuying isn’t necessary, the California Grocers Association developed a new web site, https://enoughforallca.com/ that has several resources like Ten Tips for Safe Shopping during the COVID-19 virus. Their tag line is “Please Buy Smart. Don’t Overfill Your Cart” and there’s a hashtag: #Enough4All
In addition to trying to stay stocked on a 24/7 basis, grocers and retailers are struggling with crafting unique guidelines for both consumers and employees.
Heylen says CGA sent out a list of best practices but in-store protocols are “company by company, in addition to the standard food safety protocol they follow in general.”
However, he says most retailers are stepping up safety measures.
“So, you’ll see things like x’s on the floor in an attempt to space out consumers in checkout lines. Grocery carts are about 3 feet long, so we’ve been recommending a 2-cart distance between people,” Heylen says. “Some retailers have put up plexiglass splash guards between cashiers and customers to encourage spacing. You’ll see more hand sanitizers out and available.” In addition, many stores are carving out special shopping hours for the elderly and other high-risk shoppers
Employee safety and availability is another concern, especially with schools shut down. Some workers don’t have childcare and have to take care of their families.
All of the major chains and independents are looking for workers, Heylen says.
“We really have to credit the front-line workers who still come to work every day. They have a great attitude and understand the important role they play.”
Some grocery chains are upping pay and benefits to keep employees incentivized. For example, Iowa-based Hy-Vee, Inc. is giving a front-line employee appreciation bonus to all of its part-time and full-time store employees. The employees will receive a 10% bonus on all their hours worked from March 16 to April 12. The bonuses are a $10 million commitment to employees and will be paid out on April 17. In addition, Hy-Vee is also offering new benefits to its more than 80,000 employees in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
On Tuesday, the nation’s largest grocer, Walmart, issued new guideline for workers including taking temperatures as employees report to work and asking health screening questions.
“Any associate with a temperature of 100.0 degrees will be paid for reporting to work and asked to return home and seek medical treatment if necessary. The associate will not be able to return to work until they are fever-free for at least three days. Our COVID-19 emergency leave policy allows associates to stay home if they have any COVID-19 related symptoms, concerns, illness or are quarantined – knowing that their jobs will be protected,” noted John Furner, President & CEO, Walmart U.S. and Kath McLay, President & CEO, Sam’s Club in a statement. In addition, the company is also making masks and gloves available for employees who want to wear them.