OPINIONRetailers

Not Your Average Snow Day

WGB's April editor's letter charts the industry's rapid response to the coronavirus crisis
Photograph: Shutterstock

As we went to press with our April issue, the COVID-19—commonly known as the coronavirus—pandemic was four days into being declared a national state of emergency in the wake of headlines that bounced around wildly as the outbreak propagated.

What began in late February as mild ambivalence about canceling key industry events such as Natural Products Expo West, Shoptalk and Western Michigan University’s Food Marketing Conference gave astonishingly rapid rise to a steady wave of closures of schools, restaurants, bars, offices, gyms, churches and public gatherings of all stripes for groups of 50 people or more, which quickly changed to 10, followed shortly thereafter in many places with shelter-in-place orders.

The self-distancing measures urged by leading health officials to “flatten the curve” sparked panic buying from coast to coast; the nation’s food retailers rose to the occasion like never before to replenish depleted inventory as best as humanly possible while a deluge of shoppers stripped the aisles bare.

With lines to get into stores snaking around corners and hourlong or more checkout lines a regular sight at many stores in the days leading up to March 15, viral clips of pandemic pantry-building shoppers became commonplace on social media, where #grocery was a top trending hashtag as consumers openly compared notes on whose store was more depleted.

Meanwhile, grocery store teams were working furiously to address the issue of customer hoarding that was indiscriminately wiping out shelves alongside measures implemented by many retailers to deep clean their stores, offer disinfectant wipes to shoppers, temporarily reduce store operating hours and mandate purchase limits on high-demand items.

To be sure, the challenge to meet the unparalleled surge in demand is unlike anything the nation’s retail food leaders have ever experienced and has made it glaringly clear that the dawn of the next new normal is not your average snow day. But fully understanding the potential economic effect of the coronavirus will remain as difficult of a challenge as any of us have ever seen because of the new ballgame our industry is now required to play.

While uncertainty for what comes next abounds, it seems safe to say two things: The industry must now be prepared to deal with the disruptive effects of pandemics with increasing frequency; and there will be very little to celebrate when the smoke eventually clears. Be that as it may, the coronavirus outbreak has plainly brought out the best in our industry: Many retailers have stepped up swiftly and admirably with plans to protect their businesses, supply chains and the welfare of their workers.

One such player is San Antonio-based H-E-B, which we are proud to honor in our April issue as our 2020 Grocery Business of the Year. In addition to cutting back on operating hours, the retailer also moved to temporarily suspend operations at its in-store restaurants to allow it to continue focusing on serving customers and replenishing products across all of its stores until further notice. H-E-B has also redeployed some employees normally working in departments such as bakery to help meet demand for curbside pickup and delivery, which is expected to intensify for the foreseeable future, and has also
 appointed dedicated teams of its associates and COVID action managers in each store to ensure sanitation and social distancing programs are properly followed, among other safety measures.

We are in unprecedented times and unchartered waters, and all eyes are on the grocery business, which I have no doubt will emerge as a leading pillar of resource and support for their neighbors, who have never needed them more than now.

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