The rapid development of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 caught the world by surprise, but the grocery industry has taken a leadership role in managing the impact. Grocery Business reached out to industry members to learn how retailers are managing this evolving global crisis.
“Grocery and pharmacy have been deemed essential services by the Federal Government and by Quebec, B.C. and Ontario governments, and grocery retailers have had protocols in place on how to deal with a pandemic and are following those protocols now to keep employees and customers safe,” says Marc Fortin, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) – Quebec, who spoke on behalf of RCC. He says RCC has been in regular contact with government bodies about what needs to be done to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
Michael Graydon, chief executive officer of Food & Consumer Products of Canada (FCPC), commenting on COVID-19 in a Toronto Sun online op-ed, reiterated what many in the food and grocery sector have said: supply chains are strong and already moving to restock stores across the country. He says that grocery stores need to work closely with food manufacturers "so we can adjust deliveries to have the right products in the right places at the right times," adding that the country needs trade "to continue to flow across borders, so we can ensure Canadians have access to the widest range of products."
Indeed, Karl Littler, senior vice president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada concurs, noting that there is enough food available to be shipped.
"We see two issues. One, given the spike in demand for groceries, there are challenges with truck transportation, but this challenge was there with the blockade and just adds more pressure to the supply chain. We're pushing for off-peak deliveries and more hours during which groceries can be delivered to stores. The other issue is customers hoarding. Grocers are ordering according to demand and have given notice to manufacturers, who have risen to the challenge. We think some of the initial hoarding is starting to level off and we will start to see this plateau."
Tom Shurrie, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers says that its members have implement enhanced health and hygience safety measures and that CFIG members "are working together with all levels of government to ensure our stores are open, stocked and that the products Canadians need will be available."
And in a Canadian Press story, Longo's, Metro Inc., Sobeys and Loblaw Companies are responding to food shortage fears.
"We are not running out of food or essential supplies,” Galen G. Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Companies Limited, states in a letter sent to customers, adding the company’s supply chain and store teams are working on getting the most important items back on store shelves, though some products, such as hand sanitizer, may take longer to restock.
Metro Inc. is also addressing concerns with Eric La Flèche commenting in a letter on the company's web site that it is "taking the necessary steps to avoid stock shortages as much as possible" and that its distribution centre, store, pharmacy and online grocery teams "are making every effort possible to ensure product availability and to meet the recent spike in demand."
Anthony Longo, president of Longo Brothers Fruit Markets said in a statement to The Globe and Mail, that the grocer does "not feel that there is a cause for concern as there is a significant supply of essential services."
In a statement to Grocery Business, Longo says the grocery chain is making adjustments to address concerns.
"These are unprecedented times, and we understand that the public is wary of the spread of the novel coronavirus. We hear these concerns and want to stress that the health and safety of our team members and guests remains the number one priority for Longo’s. In our stores and throughout our operations, we continue to provide updates to guests daily and make changes to our policies to ensure our guests feel safe when shopping with us."
"Looking at the response of team members, we are incredibly proud at how they have stepped up to support one another. In our stores and throughout our operations, we continue to provide updates to guests daily and make changes to our policies to ensure our guests feel safe when shopping with us."
Among the measures Longo's is taking, it has closed its Loft Cooking Schools and Corks Beer and Wine Bars, and all common seating areas, paused all self-serve food counters and sampling replacing them with pre-packages options and paused acceptance of cash payment for Grocery Gateway deliveries.
Michael Medline, CEO of Empire Co. Ltd., told CTV News that the company is seeing "demand in our stores of historic proportions, never before seen. We're running at levels we would never have thought possible. The food supply chain in this country is working better than it ever has before because it's a crisis."
As the situation continues to change, virtually daily, grocery stores across the country are taking steps to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Two Sobeys stores in Alberta introduced seniors-only shopping hours. An Edmonton, Alta. Sobeys introduced a “Golden Shopping Hour” to protect seniors during the coronavirus pandemic. The Belmont Sobeys announced via social media that each Tuesday morning, starting the week of March 16, it would hold an early morning shopping event at 6:00 a.m. for seniors. And a Sobeys in High River said it would open on Tuesday from 6 to 8 a.m. for seniors or people with immune deficiencies. Some stores in Newfoundland adopted similar practices. Following the positive feedback, Sobeys has decided to scale its Seniors Shopping Hour at many of the company's stores in its family of brands.
In a public statement about the initiative, Empire Co.'s Medline said the company will "devote the first hour of operations at many of its stores to those most vulnerable and those who require extra attention, particularly seniors."
In an earlier Globe and Mail interview, Medline stated the company and its banners are implementing plans to ensure the safety of customers and employees.
“We have to be able to keep our customers safe, and we have to keep our stores open. Stores have to be open. We sell over 20 per cent of groceries in this country. … Like most companies, we made sure that our employees were safe and doing the right things. As always, our stores are clean, and we’re taking it up another notch. … It’s essential that that food supply chain, which is working very well right now, continues to operate properly so that people can get the products they need, especially groceries.”
Medline, along with Jeff York and Jean Louis Bellemare, Co-CEOs of Farm Boy, noted in a statement to Farm Boy customers that the chain is doing everything it can “to keep people healthy across our business. Our teammates are staying home if they are sick. We have stopped all in-store sampling. The way we view ourselves is basically as an essential service as grocers. People have to eat.”
Some No Frills stores, including one in Kitimat, B.C. introduced a seniors only time after cleaning and sanitizing its store overnight and opening for seniors only at 8 a.m. the next day.
On March 13, Loblaw announced it would reduce fees from Superstores for PC Express Food pick-up and delivery and would offer free home delivery for medication from all supermarket and Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies.
Loblaw's Weston said in a note to customers that all of its banners have increased sanitization practices at their stores, cleaning high-touch areas such as checkouts, cooler doors and pharmacy counters three times a day. The company is also in the midst of retraining colleagues on safety practices and instructing them to stay away from work if they are ill.
“We know this will raise concerns around missed shifts and income. So, we’re introducing safeguards that ensure they won’t lose pay for COVID-19-related absences. People should not have to choose between their income and good health.”
Like many of his grocery retail contemporaries. Ross Bletsoe, owner of Foodland Lakefield, says his store is running in overdrive trying to meet customer demand.
"We've had toilet paper madness. An elderly gentleman approached me saying he was down to one roll so I went up to my office and picked up two boxes, marked them no charge and gave them to him and he was so grateful and said he'd never forget me."
He adds that right now his main job is to "calm the troops." He has told his employees to take breaks when they need it, go for a walk to recharge and has set in place safety measures to help them, like ensuring they have enough sanitizer wipes and gloves.
"It's crisis mode right now but we're getting shipments and expecting something like seven pallets of toilet tissue, some 40 odd pallets of other products, but it's been tough. We're out of chicken and expect to have some today but I walk the store and am embarassed by the empty shelves; we've not seen anything like this."
Shelf scenes from a shopping tsunami
Some Business Resources on COVID-19 Preparedness
Canadian Chamber of Commerce:
Retail Council of Canada
Canadian Federation of Independent Business
Government of Canada
Business Development Bank of Canada
World Health Organization: Getting your workplace ready
Legal Issues: Managing the coronavirus for employers
Harvard Business Review: 8 Questions Employers Should Ask About Coronavirus