As agriculturalists, we are well aware of the impacts COVID-19 has had on farm gate prices. As consumers, we have witnessed empty store shelves where products used to be and limits placed on certain items.
Another essential business that has worked tirelessly during this global health pandemic is grocery stores. While many other shops were asked to close their doors, grocery stores remained open to meet the basic needs of consumers.
Tim Metcalfe, co-owner of a regional grocer chain called Metcalfe’s Market, spoke with Charleston|Orwig CEO Mark Gale during a webinar titled “Food, farms, and the future.” He shared some of the actions his grocery stores have taken to improve safety during the current health situation.
Ready for rapid change
Early on in the pandemic, Metcalfe said they adopted the model of “for right now.” This meant that they would make the best decisions they could with the best information they had available today. The direction could change at any time, and they worked with their staff and the organization to be fluid. Metcalfe said one of the main things they have learned from this situation is that businesses must be prepared for continued, rapid change.
Metcalfe’s team closely monitored what was happening in China and Italy when COVID-19 first hit the headlines, and they realized that during all of this, three of the essential businesses were going to be grocery stores, hospitals, and pharmacies. Right out of the chute, they started putting safety measures in place, including extra handwashing and social distancing.
“Our focus is, first and foremost, the protection and safety of our essential workers,” Metcalfe explained. “If we protect them, that protects our customers.”
By doing everything they can to protect their customers, Metcalfe said they are also doing what they can to protect the community. “It’s a three-level approach,” he said.
One strategy they put into place at their stores was social distancing by reducing store capacity. At first they went down to 50%, then 25%, and now they allow stores to reach just 16% of their capacity.
They have marked the aisles for one-way traffic, assigned a staff member to sanitize carts, and have all employees wear face masks. Guests are encouraged to wear masks as well, but they are not a requirement.
Metcalfe said one of their most important actions was to hire an infectious disease consultant so that their decisions were guided by science. “It was one of the best things we did,” he said.
Throughout this process, the grocer has communicated regularly with customers through Facebook to let them know about the changes and safety measures that were in place.
Metcalfe commented on their ability to stock shelves and limits that were placed on certain products. He said that many manufacturers have focused on key core items and have cut production on others. While some items have been more difficult to get from national suppliers, Metcalfe said he has been able to find reliable sources of more locally produced goods.
“There are a lot of changes in a lot of different industries that have caused a disruption, but not serious issues,” he said. He gave a shout-out to everyone working in food distribution and production during these unprecedented times.
Safety is the new priority
What does Metcalfe see as fundamental changes to grocery stores moving forward?
He thinks there is going to be a huge change and growth in e-commerce and online grocery shopping. He also believes people will be more contentious about who is touching their food, leading to more individually wrapped items (like produce) and self-checkouts. The plexiglass at checkout lines is going to remain in place, and he believes masks, gloves, and social distancing are here to stay for a while.
“Price, cleanliness, and variety used to be the attributes people looked for in grocery stores,” he explained. “Now, high on a customer’s list is safety. They are going to go where they feel safest.”