4/14/2020 Medium: Grocers Must Do More To Limit Foot Traffic in Stores


Grocers Must Do More To Limit Foot Traffic in Stores.

Ben Smilowitz

Apr 14 · 3 min read

In this unprecedented time that necessitates physical distancing, we can all agree that grocery stores are essential. Although many jurisdictions are finally issuing new rules and making adjustments, in most parts of the U.S., customers still need to enter stores to buy groceries. Meanwhile, across the country, thousands of grocery store employees are getting infected with COVID-19 and many are dying.

Many grocers now hold special hours for populations most at risk. Some jurisdictions are beginning to require mask use. Others are limiting the number of customers allowed in stores at one time. These rules do not go far enough and acknowledge a harsh reality: some customers are infectious and store employees are at risk.

These rules do not go far enough and acknowledge a harsh reality: some customers are infectious and store employees are at risk.

Every day brings hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities for infection to grocery store employees. This stark reality not only threatens the lives of essential workers and our most vulnerable citizens, it will ultimately block our access to food, medicine, and household items. Grocers need to do more right now to prevent this from happening.

Grocery stores, as critical as they are, will find it difficult to function when members of their teams are infected. And that’s not all: many stores are routinely stocked by distributors. When store and distributor employees test positive, they will self-quarantine. Stores may close and supply chains will suffer.

As grocery stores begin to close, communities will be forced to rely on fewer stores, ultimately pushing more foot traffic into stores that remain open and heightening the risk of exposure to workers and customers alike. In a world where we are doing our best to flatten the COVID-19 curve, this disturbing outcome will hinder our progress.

There is an obvious solution. Grocers can use a common sense intervention to reduce outside foot traffic in stores by 90 percent or more: Expand and incentivize pickup and delivery. Minimizing contact between employees and customers will save lives and help safeguard our supply chain.

Some grocers have already adopted a pickup and delivery only model. For example, in March, Local Foods in Chicago, Illinois adopted a no-contact policy, offering only pickup and delivery, and a Kroger store in the Cincinnati, Ohio metro area, switched to pickup only. These examples should now be common practice. Unfortunately, many grocery stores, including major chains, are too slow to adapt.

It is no surprise that consumer demand for pickup and delivery services more than doubled between August 2019 and March 2020. Across the country, Americans report difficulty arranging pickup and delivery. While the surge in demand accounts for some delays, grocers are not doing enough.

Just this past weekend, a major grocer in Olney, Maryland, with a functional online ordering system, had only two parking spots available for contactless pickup and no availability for a week.

Stores can re-task cashiers and other store personnel to manage contactless grocery pickup, further reduce the number of customers allowed inside, convert more parking spots to contactless pickup, and offer phone orders for those with special needs.

Grocery stores are not exactly hurting financially right now. Major chains and some regional and local grocery stores already have technology in place for pickup and delivery and can afford to waive service charges to help those in need.

Although some smaller and independent grocers may not be set up like the larger conglomerates, pickups (and deliveries) should still be encouraged. Many stores are already innovating and creating unconventional pickup and delivery programs. After all, going the extra mile to keep customers and employees safe will build loyalty on both fronts. Why not give it a shot? The alternative is bleak.

In lieu of online ordering, pickup programs might allow customers to call ahead or email a list of up to 20 items per week and arrange for pickup of what is available. Any reductions in convenience are surely outweighed by benefits to our health, availability of food, the survival of these local businesses, and continued employment of our neighbors.

If grocery stores feel overwhelmed, they should ask for help. A couple members of a state’s National Guard posted to each grocery store parking lot could add significant efficiency.

We are lucky that grocery stores are still open. Let’s not lose that.