A trip to the supermarket — once no more than an afterthought for most people before the coronavirus pandemic hit — now represents one of the few “normal” activities for many people.

Once inside, though, things are changing from what shoppers were used to, as stores remain one of the few places where significant numbers of people are gathering and interacting.

Supermarkets are feeling pressure to rewrite their playbooks as they grapple with surging demand. Social-distancing signs have gone up, along with Plexiglass partitions. Hours are shorter, with special shopping times for seniors. Self-serve areas are closed. Employees don masks and other protective gear. Toilet paper and other high-demand items are rationed.

Amid all this, stores continue to struggle to keep essential supplies stocked.

“Paper goods — bath tissue, paper towels — continue to sell as quickly as we put them on the shelves, and limited supply from vendors and manufacturers adds to the increased demand,” said Rob Johnson, a Bashas’ spokesman.

Many other items including canned vegetables, soups, chili, pasta and pasta sauce also are selling quickly, as are flour, sugar, yeast and other baking products, he said.

Faced with limited availability at some bricks-and-mortar stores, more consumers also have turned to online delivery services, noted Rifle Hughes and Rick Williams, executives at JPG Resources, a retail-brand consulting company, in a commentary.

Some data indicate online shopping for many retail items doubled last month compared to March 2019.

“Consumers are focusing on essentials like dairy and meat along with long-shelf-life items like dry goods, canned, and frozen (food) as they stockpile for an uncertain future,” they said.

Higher revenue, restless employees

Supermarkets also are struggling, in different ways, to safeguard customers and staff. Some must deal with increasingly restless employees who are concerned about finding themselves on a front line of the war against the pandemic.

Grocery workers, like other people, have gotten sick and even died from coronavirus infections. Employees have demanded hazard pay and heightened health safeguards. Some workers have staged “sick outs” or other protests, as happened recently at some Whole Foods stores and at the Instacart delivery service. Many workers in the supply chain are worried, including those at Amazon warehouses in Phoenix.

The concerns come as demand booms. Average household spending on food and supplies related to coronavirus disruptions jumped to $631, according to an April 1 survey of 1,000 households by LendEdu. That was up from $336 just two weeks prior.

Some people are stocking up on critical goods and even hoarding. But the increased spending also suggests people are eating at home out of necessity because restaurants generally have curtailed their sit-down service — or closed altogether.

Seniors wait in line at a Bashas’ at Higley and Brown roads in Mesa on March 18, 2020. They hoped to stock up on items, but many left empty handed. Arizona Republic

Like many of its competitors, Bashas’ has run out of certain products, though in recent days the situation has improved and this trend should continue as suppliers provide more items, Johnson said in an email.

Roughly three weeks ago, Bashas’ began to limit purchases of various products and still has limits, reflecting shifting customer preferences. Food City and AJ’s Fine Foods stores also are part of the Bashas’ group.

“At first it was paper products and cleaning products, and then we saw a shift focused on dairy, eggs and meat, with the most recent focus on center-store items like canned goods and baking products,” Johnson said.

Among health safeguards, the Chandler-based company has installed Plexiglas shields at check-out areas across all of its 114 stores while adding social-distancing visual markers on the floor at six-foot intervals in areas where customers could queue up, said Johnson.

That’s in addition to increased signage throughout stores, occasional public-address announcements and the removal of tables and chairs from deli lounges and Starbucks kiosks to discourage people from sitting and congregating. Also, Bashas’ has temporarily closed sandwich counters, salad bars and other self-serve areas.

Unlike some competitors including Safeway, Bashas’ hasn’t yet placed restrictions on customers utilizing reusable bags. Employees wear gloves and masks.

Senior hour, held Wednesdays one hour before general store openings, has been popular, said Johnson. “We’ve received many expressions of appreciation from our 65-and-up customers, who are one of the most at-risk groups,” he said.

The company also has set aside special times for police, firefighters and hospital workers to shop. “That’s 30 minutes before the store opens every Tuesday and Thursday, and it, too, is well-attended.”

Bashas’ continues to hire, with openings in nearly every job category in its stores and at its distribution center.

Social-distance focus at Fry’s

Kroger, the parent of Fry’s, announced April 6 that stores across the country would limit at times the number of customers allowed inside to ensure social-distancing measures are followed.

The retailer will restrict customer capacity by 50%. The standard building capacity is one person per 60 square feet. The new capacity allows one person per 120 square feet.

“Kroger’s introduction of customer-capacity limits is one more way we are doing our part to flatten the curve while operating as an essential business,” said Mary Ellen Adcock, Kroger’s senior vice president of operations, in a prepared statement.

The number of customers per square foot will be monitored in Kroger stores with QueVision Technology — a system that uses “infrared sensors and predictive analytics,” according to the company’s statement.

Other social-distancing measures across Kroger stores include the installation of Plexiglass barriers at cash registers and other counters, floor decals to promote physical distancing and greater use of masks and gloves by associates.

Fry’s is limiting the purchase of some items, but “our warehouse is receiving product all day, every day, and working nonstop to get the product to our stores as quickly as possible,” said Pam Giannonatti, Kroger’s corporate affairs manager for Fry’s in Phoenix.

Kroger, which ranks as the largest pure supermarket employer in Arizona, with 20,100 employees as of a February tally by The Arizona Republic, has hired more than 1,000 Arizonans just in the past three weeks to keep up with the heightened demand.

The company is still hiring for various positions including entry-level managers, Giannonatti said.

No special shopping hours at Sprouts

Rather than give preferential shopping times to seniors and other groups, Sprouts Farmers Market has added more staff to improve customer service and keep stores clean and safe.

“Special shopping hours can result in long entry lines and crowding, which conflicts with social-distancing recommendations for the elderly and at-risk groups,” said spokesman Diego Romero in an email.

Other recent measures include enhanced store cleaning and the installation of Plexiglass barriers at check-out areas. Also, all team members are asked to wear gloves and masks and complete a health-screening questionnaire before starting their shifts.

Customers may continue to bring reusable bags but are asked to leave them in carts, into which Sprouts members will place items.

At Sprouts, customers have been asked to limit their purchases of eggs, gallons of milk, bath tissue and paper towels.

“Our supply chain remains strong and we are receiving daily deliveries to keep our stores well-stocked,” said Romero. With more people working at home and with Easter approaching, many shoppers are drawn to baking products, he added.

Sprouts, too, is looking to hire more people in stores, distribution centers and other areas, with about 300 open positions in metro Phoenix.

Simplified deliveries at Walmart

 Amid the coronavirus disruptions, the giant retailer said it has noticed an “overwhelming response” to pickup and delivery services that include streamlined health-safety measures. For example, there’s no need for customers to sign for either pickup or delivery orders, as associates will load the goods in your vehicle’s trunk or leave them on your doorstep.

Other health-safety precautions include the installation of Plexiglass barriers plus floor decals and signs to encourage proper social distancing. Walmart doesn’t have any company-wide rules prohibiting customers from using their own bags.

Like some competitors, Walmart has given older customers, people 60 and up, an extra hour of shopping on Tuesdays, one hour before stores regularly open.

Walmart, which ranks as Arizona’s second-largest largest nongovernment employer, is hiring 3,700 more people in the state — from cashiers and warehouse associates to personal shoppers.

Products seeing high demand at Walmart, with some purchase limits imposed, include paper items, milk, eggs, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers, bottled water, diapers, wipes, formula and baby food.

Employee safety at Albertsons and Safeway

The Albertsons Companies stores, which include Safeway, joined with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union to ask that grocery employees are classified as “extended first responders” and “emergency personnel.”

That is intended to ensure that they receive coronavirus testing and personal protection equipment.

“The temporary designation of first responder or emergency personnel status would help ensure these incredible grocery workers access to priority testing, have access to personal protection equipment, like masks and gloves, as well other workplace protections necessary to keep themselves and the customers they serve safe and healthy,” Albertsons President and CEO Vivek Sankaran and UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a joint statement.

Albertsons and Safeway have implemented social-distancing protocols and designated waiting points at check-out lines, service delis, bakeries and pharmacy counters to keep people from congregating. Some stores have Plexiglass barriers.

Many of the stores have limited purchases of toilet paper, certain meat and poultry items and other products.

Other changes include limiting the number of shoppers to 75 or 100 at a time, depending on store size. Also, masks soon will be distributed to employees who interact with customers.

Like many businesses, the Albertsons/Safeway stores are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that encourage regular hand washing and enhanced cleaning and sanitization protocols, according to the company.

Albertsons and other supermarkets are partnering with companies like Marriott and Hilton to provide jobs to hospitality workers who have been furloughed.

“We are seeing ongoing hiring in the effort to keep up with the surge in demand,” said the JPG analysts. “Almost every role in retail and distribution is under strain as retailers adapt almost daily to find ways to protect their employees and the public while providing much-needed foods and household items.”

Source: Arizona Republic