More Grocers Stepping Up With Dedicated Hours for At-Risk Shoppers

Other retailers discourage the practice
Photograph courtesy of Fareway Facebook page-Independence, Iowa

Please check WGB’s Live Blog for additional updates about additional retailers adopting new store hours and designated shopping hours for COVID-19 high risk customers.

Heeding the call of social influencers and their overseas competitors, several U.S. grocery chains are backing the movement to designate specific windows of time to allow for older and vulnerable customers who are at a higher risk of severe illness by COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, to shop.

Nearly all U.S. retailers in the past week have modified their operating hours to free up the aisles and parking lots for deliveries, restocking, cleaning and disinfecting amid the surge of panicked shoppers who have mobbed supermarkets and stripped the aisles bare—all of which compounds the hardship experienced by elderly and at-risk shoppers.

In response, grocers such as Lunds & Byerlys, Fareway, Dollar General and Northgate Gonzalez are among those who have answered the call from the likes of Chef Jose Andres and his legion of followers to employ dedicated windows of time to accommodate for elderly and immunocompromised shoppers.

In an open letter to customers on its website, Tres Lund, CEO of Minneapolis-based Lunds & Byerlys, discussed the 27-store retailer’s move to temporarily change its hours of operation from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week while “asking all customers to respect our request of having the opening hour of 7-8 a.m. each day reserved for those shoppers who are at a higher risk of severe illness by COVID-19, which includes older adults and those who have compromised immune systems," Lund said. “In doing so, our intent is to provide an opportunity for those individuals to be the first to shop after our overnight cleaning and stocking so they have increased access to essential products.”

Like its peers across the industry, Lunds & Byerlys is also taking additional steps to curtail the outbreak by temporarily stopping all in-store product sampling and partnering with its primary and secondary suppliers to find additional suppliers to keep high-demand products on its shelves; limiting purchases of high-demand products; and increasing online shopping fulfillment capabilities to meet increased demand for curbside pickup.

“We take a tremendous amount of pride in the role we play in providing you and your family with safe, high-quality foods,” Lund said, adding that “there is nothing more important to us than ensuring the safety of our staff and customers.”

Stop & Shop, Quincy, Mass., is opening all of its locations early in order to accommodate older shoppers who are more susceptible to coronavirus. The stores have set aside the time between 6-7:30 a.m. for shoppers who are 60 and older. These customers will enter the store through a designated door, and while an ID will not be required for entry, store staff are authorized to ask anyone to leave the store if they do not appear to be of this age group.

“We’re making the decision to offer this every day of the week to allow for community members in this age category to shop in a less crowded environment, which better enables social distancing. They’ll also be shopping prior to any other customers entering,” Stop & Shop President Gordon Reid said in a statement on the company’s website.

Regular store hours have been adjusted to 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. to allow associates time to restock shelves, clean the stores and gain some much needed rest, Reid said.

Stop & Shop’s home delivery remains operational, and it has added a “contact-free” delivery option, aimed largely at those who are at larger risk of contracting coronavirus. Delivery personnel notify customers by text or email when they arrive and will leave the bags of groceries at the doorstep or building entry without waiting for admittance to the home. “We recognize there may be some delays with this service due to unprecedented demand, and we are continuing to work hard to meet your needs,” Reid said.

Northgate Gonzalez Market is following a similar program to Stop & Shop in its 41 southern California locations. It has reduced its regular hours to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, but will open at 7 a.m. for disabled customers and those older than 65. “We recognize the challenge facing seniors and other at-risk populations, and we need to address them by providing them an opportunity to shop for essentials without fear or trepidation,” said Northgate co-President Miguel Gonzalez, in a local news report.

For Bashas’, Food City and AJ’s Fine Foods, the designated hour is limited to one day per week, and shoppers will be required to show identification. Locations will open from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. on Wednesdays for anyone age 65 and older. Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas’ reservation stores will be open from 6-7 a.m. for seniors. One caretaker per senior is allowed, but that caretaker will not be allowed to shop for themselves, and all purchase limitations will remain in effect.  

Midwestern chain Fareway Stores also is making adjustments to store hours. The shortened store hours of 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. will allow for additional cleaning, and 8-9 a.m. “will be reserved for those customers who are 65 and over, expecting mothers, those living with a serious chronic medical condition, and anyone with an underlying medical condition that increases the susceptibility to serious illness from COVID-19. We appreciate the advance cooperation from our customers in respecting the hour reserved for those that are at higher risk,” noted a statement from the Boone, Iowa-based company.

National chains also are making adjustments. Dollar General has designated the first hour after opening for seniors to allow them to avoid the busiest times and purchase supplies they need. “In keeping with our mission and our ongoing commitment to serve our communities, we are dedicating the first hour of each day to seniors. We appreciate our customers’ understanding of our decision and request they visit our stores later in the morning to allow at-risk populations the ability to purchase the items they need at affordable prices,” said Todd Vasos, CEO of Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based Dollar General. Stores will continue to open at their regularly scheduled time; closing times have been shortened by one hour from normal closing times, which vary by location.

Target also has shortened hours; all stores will close by 9 p.m., and similar to Bashas’, the first hour of operation on Wednesday will be devoted to the elderly and those with underlying health concerns. Stores will continue to open at their regularly scheduled time. “As our team continues to adapt to the countrys fast-changing needs, were announcing plans to reduce our store hours and offer dedicated shopping hours for vulnerable guests, said Brian Cornell, chairman and CEO of Minneapolis-based Target, in a statement. Well also maintain limits on select products and would ask guests to purchase only what they need so theres enough supply to accommodate this increased demand.

Not Everyone Is On Board

However, not all grocers are on board. H-E-B is among the retailers that have refrained from implementing special hours for vulnerable customers. In a statement, the 400-store San Antonio-based chain said: “Our leadership team studied this option thoroughly and due to recommendations from health officials, we have determined this is not the best and safest option for our customers. H-E-B takes care of Texas, and we feel asking a group to congregate at our stores in a certain timeframe is not a safe idea.”

H-E-B President Scott McClelland, who spoke during a news conference at Houston City Hall on Monday to discuss panic buying and discourage stockpiling of groceries and supplies, encouraged shoppers to use the retailer’s online ordering, pickup and delivery services and shop for seniors via Twitter.

Doug Baker, VP industry relations for Arlington, Va.-based FMI, told WGB he also balks at the idea of special shopping hours for at-risk populations. “What we actually are encouraging and what we're seeing more of it is communities that are actually creating sort of like listservs online and creating their communities online to help each other,” he said in an interview with WGB.

He noted that at-risk populations such as the elderly might not want to go out at all, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has actually encouraged them to stay home. They may need to turn to neighbors to drop the groceries off at their homes.

“We’re seeing community centers and churches also starting to offer that. So we believe that that’s probably the better path, because it allows those at-risk categories to stay home and actually not go out into that public and give themselves any chance of risking getting the virus,” Baker said, noting that store employees can unwittingly pass the virus to these compromised individuals who will then spread it among their larger compromised community.

Other chains are also avoiding special operating hours for the elderly and immunocompromised consumers due to concerns about potential litigation. A representative from a regional grocery chain who requested anonymity told WGB while their company has received inquiries about special operating hours and is aware it’s a hot trending topic on social media, “We do not have any plans to allow any single group time to shop. Limiting a segment of the population is opening us to the potential of litigation by an equally sensitive group who may not receive the same opportunity.”


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