Should grocers close their doors to customers for safety’s sake?

Discussion
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Apr 23, 2020
Matthew Stern

It is critical that grocery stores remain open during the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that they draw crowds, however, also makes them a significant point of potential transmission for the novel coronavirus, putting customers and especially staff at risk. This has led some to suggest that it is time for all grocers to close their store doors to customers.

Citing the deaths of dozens of people working in grocery stores from COVID-19, medical experts, union leaders and small grocers have begun to argue that the safest policy is keeping customers out of the stores entirely, according to CNN. Mark Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said that 85 percent of customers are still failing to social distance within stores. Mr. Perrone pointed to careless customers as the biggest threat to the health of grocery store workers.

The coronavirus pandemic took a horrifying turn in the U.S. in late March and early April when reports of workers succumbing to COVID-19 began to hit the news.

Turning all grocers into “dark stores” with curbside pickup and delivery as the only shopping options would drastically reduce the number of people coming into contact with one another during shopping trips but, importantly, would prevent store staff from having to encounter countless customers over the duration of their shifts.

Such a move could also increase the speed and efficiency with which shoppers for third-party delivery companies pick groceries, allowing them to get in and out of stores more quickly.

Grocery stores have already taken steps to reduce the number of customers in-store at any given time to prevent the spread of coronavirus and to improve BOPIS efficiency.

Last month, for instance, a Kroger store in Cincinnati converted to pick-up only to better meet the surging online order demand. This month, Amazon.com closed its Bryant Park Whole Foods location in Manhattan to public foot traffic to allow the store to focus entirely on online orders. Other large Manhattan Whole Foods locations, however, remain open to the public.

Other chains have taken the opposite approach. Cub Foods announced it would keep 11 stores in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area open 24 hours a day, a move that could relieve crowding.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think more supermarkets will convert to pickup and delivery-only operations in an effort to protect associates and customers?  Is it possible for grocery stores to operate like this at scale and how might they mitigate any negative effects of closing stores to customers?

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"There are ways to expand options and keep the tills ringing without going out on a limb."
"The most sensible solution being tried by some grocers is to limit the number of customers in the store at one time. All shoppers must wear masks or they do not enter."
"Grocers that implement social-distancing policy, cart sanitation, and limitations on foot traffic, will not only protect their customers but they may win in the market..."

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46 Comments on "Should grocers close their doors to customers for safety’s sake?"


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Art Suriano
Guest

I think the next move we are going to see is the drastic differences between the states. Here on the East Coast, we still see a higher number of cases and deaths daily. That is not the same for states like Kentucky and South Carolina. So I would expect there now to be a shift with some states increasing the social distancing practices like some supermarkets closing entirely while other states begin to relax some of their rules. The problem here is that no one knows what’s right or what’s best. And as we listen to the debate daily between politicians and experts as to what we should or should or not do, everyone is getting confused and frustrated. Many argue we have passed the peak and, if so, then hopefully over the next couple of weeks all the numbers will begin a decline. If that happens, rather than grocers worrying about closing their stores entirely, we could be seeing strategies for how to reopen.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

I don’t think it’s that no one knows what’s right or what’s best. It’s that what is right and best for medical reasons is at odds with what’s best for financial reasons. Close grocery stores but open entire states (Georgia) and cities (Las Vegas)? The willful ignoring of scientific data by some politicians is what is going to create the biggest long term expense — loss of life and a prolonged disruption of any return to some kind of new normal.

Art Suriano
Guest

Jeff, that was my point in broad terms. Medically, we are told there is a 98 percent or higher recovery rate while at the same time we are told how dangerous contracting the virus could be. Financially, we are told this will lead us to the worst recession since the Great Depression and the next sentence we hear from someone else is how we will bounce back in a few months. If that’s not confusing and frustrating, I don’t know what is. It depends on who a person listens to and what you believe.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Yep … agreed. I’m sitting here watching a webcast on lessons learned during the ongoing recovery in China. The overwhelming aspect of executing the re-opening = Safety, Safety, Safety.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

If grocers have safe protocols in place to protect shoppers and workers, they should stay open. This involves everything from sanitized carts and touch screens to mandated masks, and from directional signing to distancing barriers.

My purely anecdotal sense right now (from two in-store visits last weekend and from online pickup dates available in the next day or so at two local supermarkets) is that the panic buying is starting to subside. While I shopped during “senior hours,” I saw reasonably full shelves and an orderly amount of store traffic.

If these kinds of manageable conditions become more widespread, there is no reason for most supermarkets to shut their doors as long as they observe “safety first.”

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

When I say “mandated masks,” I mean among the store associates too, not just the customers. I would have been happier at one of those store visits if the associate watching over the self-checkout lane had been wearing a mask herself. Safety is a two-way street.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust
Suresh Chaganti
Co-Founder and Executive Partner, VectorScient
5 months 6 days ago

Only yesterday we discussed Cubs Foods opening 24/7. Obviously extremes don’t help. If a few people at facility got infected, they need to close down for a day or two to clean and disinfect before opening again. A Walgreens and a large ethnic grocery store in my neighborhood did the same.

In most cases they have it right. Reduced hours, sanitized carts, crowd control, one way aisles. Most importantly, ensure staff have enough time and space to work on safety and cleanliness.

Pickup-only may be required based on location, but I suspect it will be left for individual chains to decide.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

No, this is a ridiculous suggestion.

First, there is no way that stores could cope with the volumes needed to serve all customers.

Second, not everyone has access to the right technology or the knowledge of that technology to place orders.

Third, the above two points would likely lead to panic and possibly protests.

Naturally, grocery stores should take precautions like limiting customers in the store at any one time, protecting staff, and so forth. But the current restrictions we have go far enough. We don’t need to add to them further at this point.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

I agree. If this were announced the panic buying we saw earlier would pale in comparison to what would happen. While many of us have the ability to use online functionality to place an order and pay for it, there is a huge number of people who don’t. How would they survive?

Rick Moss
Staff

Very much in agreement, Neil. Even the mighty Amazon is struggling mightily to keep up with online grocery orders. Getting delivery slots from Whole Foods in NYC or from other grocers via Instacart is like trying to nab Springsteen concert tickets. If government were to mandate that stores close down to shoppers, many people would go without food. Local governments should work out appropriate guidelines and restrictions to assure the safety of workers, and retailers should be given the freedom to devise their own strategies. That way, consumers will continue to have a variety of options.

Mark Heckman
BrainTrust

Well stated Neil. Kroger and others are leading the way to find ways to keep shoppers and associates safe as we ride out the pandemic. If you want to see panic hit the streets and a resumption of hoarding, just mentioning supermarkets MAY close. That will do the trick. With that said, if you can use curbside pick-up — I encourage you to do so. If not, please wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and be mindful of keeping your distance when shopping. I have nothing but admiration for the great people that come to work in our retail stores everyday!

David Naumann
BrainTrust

Some larger chains have the resources to convert some stores to pick-up and delivery only, however, it is not feasible for small independent grocers. Many small grocers may not have online ordering capabilities yet and hiring the staff to pick all orders is cost prohibitive.

Unless mandated by local governments, I don’t think many grocers will prevent customers from entering stores. That said, there are a lot of other things grocery stores should be doing during the pandemic, like requiring all staff and customers to wear face masks and maybe even gloves. I have been in grocery stores and many of the staff are not wearing masks and about 25 percent of customers are not wearing masks. We all need to take this seriously.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

As appealing as pickup-only processes sound, most grocers simply do not have the infrastructure to make it happen. Staffing would have to ratchet upward. Costs would increase sharply. Customers would have to be satisfied with the green bananas they got, not the yellow bananas they wanted. I don’t see it.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

No they shouldn’t convert – but I have no problem with them instituting customer count limits at any one time and requiring customers to wear masks. Trader Joe’s by me is doing this and spraying your hands with sanitizer before you enter – if you don’t like it, they are happy to nicely decline to let you in.

Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust

Converting to pick-up only is easier said than done. It requires the build-out of an e-commerce platform unless stores are willing to take phone orders. I suggest that some small-to-medium-sized operators try this as an augmentation strategy. A store in my area enjoys great loyalty within the community but has stuck to the shop-in-store model. The store manager makes a point of stocking all kinds of specialty items that are probably parked on the shelves as traffic dwindles to those seeking staples. Were they to offer phone orders with touchless pickup for these items, I would load up and cut out a mask-wearing jaunt to Whole Foods miles away. Surely I’m not alone. Another local medium-sized chain partners with Instacart for same-day delivery. There are ways to expand options and keep the tills ringing without going out on a limb.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Retailers must insist that all customers wear masks and gloves and anyone found not following guidelines including social distancing should be escorted out of the store. Period. I am amazed how many people are just plain oblivious to how close they are getting to others in the aisles. If this does not change, stores will have no choice but to go to pick up only. Grocery workers deserve it!

George Anderson
Staff

I think one of the downsides to shoppers being required to wear masks is that people, consciously or not, seem to think they no longer need to be as careful about social distancing in stores. This past weekend at a Whole Foods in New Jersey, I stood well back and watched customers get within a couple of feet of one another as they shopped the produce aisle. A month back when we weren’t wearing masks, people seemed to be very aware of maintaining six-feet of separation.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

My favorite quote states, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes). The face of grocery will change forever as a result of this pandemic. And honestly, it’s about time that out of necessity new approaches are introduced to care for associates, invite shoppers into a safe environment, manage “essential” inventory in an entirely reinvented way and, yes, incorporate technology as part of the solution. However, I disagree that online-only with curbside pickup will become the replacement for traditional grocery operations. Could I envision an innovative format to the likes of which we have never seen? Absolutely. I believe the best is yet to come!

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

This question is really tough! Workers need to be protected, especially from customers that don’t seem to have a clue. However, I don’t know that closing grocery stores and only allowing pick-up or delivery is the answer. Were a grocer to do this, a big piece of that grocery retailer’s current customers would move to shop somewhere else (like convenience or dollar stores) instead of trying to order online. Before it comes to this, maybe retailers need to get tougher with customers by limiting the number of shoppers in a store at one time, requiring gloves and masks, taking temperatures, reinforcing current rules and adopting additional restrictions.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Absolutely not. Perception is everything. Here in NY we are still locked down til 5/15 – at least. I live in a very rural area. Instacart out here, while it exists, is a joke and broadband doesn’t exist up in the hills and mountains. Of all the places used to cleaning regularly, I feel grocers are able to do it best by following protocol about mandated masks, gloves, and even adding infrared temperature taking for both staff and those who enter. But closing to browsing? No.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

I think grocers should create pick-up only units but not close existing stores. I mean, don’t take the only place I feel OK going to away! All the practices possible have been put into place in any of the grocers here in Ohio: social distance markers, “safe” employees (masks and gloves), one-way aisles, sneeze guards, signage reminding everyone about the best safety rules, on and on. So let’s keep that rolling and, in the meantime, open units that are built from scratch for pick-up and delivery (21st century units) rather than trying to convert old ones (20th century stores).

Stephen Rector
BrainTrust

No – the grocery stores need to stay open – however, they do need to make it safe for their employees to work – so if they need to limit the amount of customers in at a time, provide better safety gear for their employees and reduce hours so they can keep the store clean, then they need to get it done!

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

The majority of the grocery shopping is still occurring through brick-and-mortar shopping and not curbside or home delivery. As long as employees are following sanitary rules and they are policing social distancing, this should be fine. A lot of stores in different states/cities/municipalities are requiring customers to wear masks when entering the store.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

No, it is not necessary to close the stores to foot traffic in all locations. Again, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Manhattan stores? Maybe. Wyoming stores have no need to close to customers if common sense precautions are in place. 1.) Require all customers to wear masks. Period. 2.) Allocate customers in as others walk out. Whatever makes sense for your store size and layout. Figure on average approximately one shopper per 100 square feet of sales floor on average. 3.) Enforce every employee to wear masks. I still see staff at major grocers without masks at the checkout lanes. We do not need to panic. Just enforce common sense rules.

Gregory Osborne
BrainTrust

Though more grocers may convert to pickup and delivery-only operations, I think that most grocers interested in converting have already done so. The conversion is a difficult and sometimes costly process. At this point, it seems that policy makers have already geared towards a reopening of the economy, accepting the risk that a second wave of infections is likely. Grocers that implement social-distancing policy, cart sanitation, and limitations on foot traffic, will not only protect their customers but they may win in the market as shoppers will be more comfortable in their stores.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust
Is everybody insane? Our economy is a train wreck, and now some folks suggest we should close down grocery stores. I live in this environment every day, and we do our best to protect our workers and customers. No one does it perfectly but if this is where we are going, our way of life will cease to exist. I talk to many businesses, and just yesterday one of our best restaurants told me that with the new rules regarding reopening, it will bankrupt many fine establishments, as government mandates are close to a third-world dictatorship regime on how we live and who we can associate with. I have seen comments that until a vaccine is created, these non-essential businesses should not open, and if that happens, anarchy will take over. People die every day of many different illnesses that are just a statistic, but this coronavirus has gotten the most attention since the HIV virus. Doctors will figure out how to provide solutions in the near future. Until then our lives must go on,… Read more »
Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I have written twice that going to pick-up only is logical choice from a business and safety perspective. If Mark Perrone’s numbers are correct (I doubt it), then stores should be closed to shopping because customers can’t be controlled. If Dave Naumann’s anecdotal evidence is correct (likely) that 25 percent of customers weren’t wearing masks then stores should closed to shopping. To me the maximum allowable variance to following safety rules is ZERO. And if a customer can’t follow safe rules, I am with Zel Bianco — remove them from the store.

Here in NYC Whole Foods converted one of eight stores to no customers. That alone changed the ability of Whole Foods to meet same-day delivery. Before that one could not get a delivery slot for over a week, from Whole Foods or any of the other delivery services.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Will an entire chain convert to e-grocery? No. Will a subset of stores convert? Yes.

To protect consumers and staff, a seismic shift to online grocery shopping is underway. Now some grocers are shutting specific brick-and-mortar stores to consumer traffic to minimize health risks and act as e-commerce fulfillment centers. Store locations in dense urban neighborhoods make the most sense for faster fulfillment and delivery.

However, scale is an issue. Already grocery pick-up timeslots are filled up for weeks in advance. More e-commerce orders would further slow the grocery customer experience.

If third-party shoppers replace end-consumers within stores, protecting the health of third-party shoppers becomes a priority, making masks and temperature checks mandatory.

Also not everyone is online, making it a challenge to serve all shoppers with a total commitment to BOPIS and delivery-only.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

For many operators this is just not possible. My regular supermarket, for example, is open and offers curbside pickup, but — given this is southeastern Michigan, a COVID-19 “hot spot” — it’s very hard to get a “pickup slot.” In fact you have to place your order a week in advance — if you can get in before everyone else. Inside the store? Lots of customers without masks and/or gloves. So maybe the pragmatic thing is to just refuse entry to any customers not wearing personal protection period and ask customers who insist on crowding to leave the store. My niece works at Trader Joe’s and — despite all their thorough sanitation procedures — she got a fairly serious case of COVID-19. Would pick-up have prevented that? Who knows, but it would not have hurt.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

No, I do not think that grocery stores should close and convert to pick-up and delivery only. I do, however, think grocery retailers can do a better job of requiring both store associates and customers to wear masks. Judging on my recent visits to grocery stores, where incidentally only random workers and shoppers were wearing masks, I believe they can do a better job policing social distancing. Sanitizing carts, one-way aisles, frequent deep-cleaning and more will be with us for a long time. So much has already been taken away, let’s figure it out and let people shop safely.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

I agree with you Georganne. My experiences have been similar. I also think to have reminder signs at checkout [even with the Plexiglas panels now in place] to remind shoppers to stand back from the counter when checking out. Most counters create only 3′ to 4′ distance between store associates and shoppers. Changing routine human shopping behavior in both shoppers and store associates requires kind reminders throughout the store. Many shoppers seem to become unaware of their actions once they get into the store especially after a long wait to get into the store.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

It’s human nature to get closer to one another than we can these days. I think we get into a familiar pattern and forget we need to stay 6′ apart. It’s easy to do; kind reminders just make sense.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

It’s simple — SAFETY FIRST! If operating as a pick-up and delivery model is the safest model, then so be it. We will figure out how to make it work. And if it is “universal,” as in across all grocery stores, then everyone will be in the same situation. We’ll adapt. Again, we’ll make it work.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I fell out of my desk chair when I read this. The grocery industry executives that I have met are brilliant retailers. I do have a hard time with this issue of closing the doors to shoppers. This would cause so much confusion, frustration and anger that the down side would be tragic for the stores. The BrainTrust comments on this post must be read by grocery executives. Most are brilliant. I don’t want to see another crisis for the public to endure. NO CLOSURES to shoppers!

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust

Grocery stores and their workforces are key workers in keeping people alive in the current situation. If people don’t eat they starve and die. We need to protect these key workers as much as possible and make the retail store environment as safe as possible.

However, to close all food stores would create big issues. What about people without access to the internet to place orders? How would we get enough delivery vehicles and staff to do the work? People have to be responsible about maintaining social distancing and stores need to protect staff at checkouts with screens and masks, etc.

There are limits to how much you can protect people. Everything possible should be done to make them safe places to work and for the public but closing stores is not the answer.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust
I can already see the sci-fi version of customers going into a decontamination chamber as they enter and exit a store with a fine mist covering them to kill germs. Limiting customers is a challenge for stores and really doesn’t work – even with sneeze guards and six-foot distance policies, there are still too many chances for contact and everyone is funneled through a compressed checkout anyway. One asymptomatic, infected person tripping in the checkout line and you have a mess to clean up plus at least two or three more infected people. Alternatively, the dark store concept is completely viable and can be set in place with the right tech in a short period of time. This really does depend on where you are based in the country, the level of risk and the existing store policies that make it safer. For a grocery chain it may even be decided store-by-store by executives. However a strong tech system and experts can get it up and running quickly- it’s a much faster shift and anything… Read more »
Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

I don’t think supermarkets will convert more stores to pick-up and delivery-only, especially as we get closer to slowly opening up the economy. I don’t believe the number indicating that 85 percent of people do not social distance – at my local stores, everyone is sensitive and obeys the social distancing guidelines. People that are worried about going into stores are already using BOPIS.

For new stores to provide pick-up and delivery-only would require spending resources on infrastructure which is a huge deterrent to the grocers.

Joe Szala
Guest

I don’t believe that closing stores in the name of safety is necessarily the answer. Some stores have and will go dark and service e-commerce only (as with some Kroger and Giant Eagle locations as of late), however that is an effort to solve for demand.

Sooner than later we need much better and faster data, with subsequent contact tracing and quarantines, related to COVID-19 positives at grocery locations and elsewhere. At this time we can identify that three people who worked or visited a given store tested positive, however we can very seldom identify the origin of the spread.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

We are at the point when governors are opening up their states so the economy can slowly rebound. That means restaurants, some stores, etc. This is not the time to close supermarkets to foot traffic. Cutting off easy access to food might spark civil unrest.
The most sensible solution being tried by some grocers is to limit the number of customers in the store at one time. All shoppers must wear masks or they do not enter. These measures ensure social distancing to some degree and may reduce exposure.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

As usual, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. As one of society’s “venerable” citizens (I’m getting older … ) I may choose contactless since I am in a higher risk category, but for lower risk shoppers a clean store which manages to not allow crowding should be just fine. While I think there’s a lot of partisan propaganda floating around trying to ignore/distort facts — we can’t have zero risk, so managing to lower risk is a perfectly fine alternative.

George Anderson
Staff
Having reread the article and the source pieces, I’m pretty sure no one is suggesting that grocery stores be closed down. The recommendation is that supermarkets where workers are most at-risk change their operations to pickup and delivery models. This is the same restriction placed on sit-down restaurants in my town and across many parts of the country. I think everyone involved in the grocery business has a basic understanding of the complexities and costs associated with making this shift. Trader Joe’s, for one, has chosen over the years not to sell online understanding the challenges that come with it. For many (most) going to a pickup- and/or delivery-only model will not make sense and commonsense precautions and practices are the way to go for these. I do find it somewhat troubling, I must admit, suggestions if not outright assertions put forth by some business leaders, politicians, and pundits that there are acceptable losses of life associated with this pandemic. Many of these same people pooh-poohed the COVID-19 threat in the first place suggesting it… Read more »
Peter Charness
BrainTrust

I see some of the same silly statistics claiming “more people die in traffic accidents in a year but we don’t restrict cars.” Well we don’t have all those traffic victims showing up in the hospital over a four week period, all needing the same care and equipment, and a good percentage of the traffic fatalities (unfortunately) never get to the hospital at all. The misrepresentation of statistics during this crisis is crazy. We used to be good at critical thinking. Challenging the assertions we are given and judging if the information is logical. It seems there is now the Fox News view and the CNN view and nothing in between. Sad.

Brent Biddulph
BrainTrust

Absolutely not. Closing grocery stores (read: food) to in-store foot traffic would cause a full-on (and unnecessary) consumer panic. However, local governments could/should certainly step up monitoring of safety measures employed, provide additional guidance and take control by penalizing offenders that are not taking the proper steps to ensure public (consumer and employee) safety. And the press could call out the offenders as a last result.

It is important to recognize that even the best curbside pick-up capabilities could not possibly feed entire populations. Let’s not make the situation worse, rather, let’s apply (and enforce) common sense approaches.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Matthew said it all in his first sentence.

Kathy Kimple
BrainTrust

Consumer needs are going to shift as precautions become the new normal, and grocery companies will have to decide what works best given ongoing levels of consumer demand.

What will come into play is how well the grocer can pivot to handle the new challenges of managing curbside pick up and order shipments. A move to that will require some operational changes to stores and hold huge volumes of orders for pick up, AND it will tax the ability of retailers to handle and communicate out-of-stocks and substitutions. Today when customers are finding many out-of-stocks, they are making change decisions on the fly — something systemically challenging to handle.

While online-only grocers like Fresh Direct are seeing business skyrocket, there’s no guarantee that demand will stay at or even near current levels. This decision is a moving target, and most grocers appear to be testing their way into it.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

There were many more (newly hired) pickers today at my local Ralph’s.

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Braintrust
"There are ways to expand options and keep the tills ringing without going out on a limb."
"The most sensible solution being tried by some grocers is to limit the number of customers in the store at one time. All shoppers must wear masks or they do not enter."
"Grocers that implement social-distancing policy, cart sanitation, and limitations on foot traffic, will not only protect their customers but they may win in the market..."

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