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Grocery Shopping in the Time of Corona: It’s Awful

Of all the uncertainties the novel coronavirus as brought upon us, one thing is absolute: shopping has changed. Specifically, grocery shopping. In a recent survey we ran, more than 50% of customers across the country said that they were afraid to shop in supermarkets. Give that a minute to really sink in.

More than 50% of people are afraid to shop in grocery stores.

Just a few months ago, the even the suggestion of such a statistic would be ridiculous, but we are all so acclimated to this new normal that in order to get you to actually read it, I had to give it its own line.

Now that things are settling, states are weighing the pros and cons of reopening, and most Americans are assuming daily vocabulary words like isolation and social distancing, I find myself thinking about the shopping experience—specifically my shopping experience—and how it’s shifting.

As we move through this time of great transition into something new and different, I thought I would chart my personal thoughts and experience as a grocery shopper to try to get at how things have changed and what they might look like on the other side.


How Things Used to Be in Bushwick, Brooklyn in 2020 BC (Before Corona)

In my neighborhood, there are three grocery stores that I love.

One has amazing vegan options like plant-based sausages, burgers, and yogurt, and all those special ingredients that make vegan meals sing: nutritional yeast, arrowroot flour, and tons of different kinds of seeds.

The other has the best produce around: crisp lettuce, a-few-days-until-they’re-ripe avocados, plump tomatoes that seem to never go soft, and potatoes that don’t start sprouting for a week.

And the third is your regular, run-of-the-mill supermarket that has what you need and has it for cheap.

On an ideal Sunday morning, I’d grab my big cotton shopping sack (plastic bags are now illegal here), put on some music and start shopping. I’d start at the vegan place, giving Ahmed (who owns the place and is super kind) a wave and smile, and browse through the aisles, picking up the Beyond Burgers, tofu, and pantry items I had exhausted. Then I’d move to the produce place, greeting Omar (who owns the place and is also kind, but not as much) with a wave, grabbing lemons, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and the rest for the side-dishes I had planned. And finally, I’d make the three-block trek to Pioneer Supermarket, the only full-sized grocery store around, where I didn’t know anyone, but knew I could grab canned beans, bread, olives, condiments, and anything else I needed for cheap.

In less than an hour, I would have finished all my shopping, and been home putting everything away.


How Things Are Now in Bushwick, Brooklyn in 2020 AC (After Corona)

I start at the top and I work my way down.

Hat ✔️

Mask ✔️

Coat ✔️

Gloves ✔️

Sanitizer ✔️

Once prepared, I venture out, no music so I can focus and hear if someone is trying to warn me about something, and head straight to the vegan grocer. Ahmed isn’t there anymore, but I nod to his cousin, Basil, and head straight to the back refrigerator. There’s no browsing, because I have explicitly planned everything I am eating for the week and know exactly what I’m getting.

I pass the few items I’m purchasing under a clear plastic tarp covering the deli counter, and Basil rings them up silently. I am conscious of someone standing too close to me in line, and I look over my shoulder, giving a blank expression, trying to suggest that I’m annoyed. Basil takes note and asks the other customer to step back. He puts the items in my bag, and I purchase them using the contactless debit card function. There is a sign that says ‘No cash.’

‘See you next week,’ I say through my mask, and he nods, looking toward the next customer.

I skip the produce place. Omar doesn’t wear a mask, and the store looks worse lately, unclean, and the aisles are too narrow. It’s impossible to maintain social distance in that store, and the only time I tried to shop there, an older woman was coughing into her hands. I am not going to try again.  

I head straight toward the Pioneer Supermarket. There isn’t a line today, because I have started shopping in the middle of the workday, on Wednesdays, to avoid the crowd. A store employee waits at the front door, looking me up and down, ensuring I’m wearing the necessary protective equipment before I am allowed to enter. He nods and waves me in.

I unfurl my checklist, and start with the produce: bananas, strawberries, onions, and potatoes. There are only a few people in the section, and I’m able to avoid them because the aisles are wide. I quickly plan my route depending on what I need, where people are located, and where it appears they’re heading, and set about grabbing my items.

I move methodically through the store, each ingredient on my list is grouped with its similarly-located counterparts: beans, chickpeas & Rotel, canned tomatoes, pasta & olives, and on and on. I can’t find the coffee I like, but I don’t see anyone to ask, so I skip it. Once my basket is full, I move toward the long queue, for which an entire aisle is dedicated. Strips of tape on the floor show how far apart we should stand, and I shuffle forward every few minutes as the next person is summoned with a DMV-inspired ‘Next!,’ or ‘¡próximo en la fila!’

The woman ringing up my items doesn’t look at me or say hello, but she does argue with someone standing behind her, I believe her manager, in Spanish. She seems exhausted. He seems exhausted, too. Our eyes meet but he looks away, then says something to another cashier and moves toward the line—a customer has tried to slide in without waiting.

I pay again with contactless debit. I bag my own items. The cashier watches me, and when I put the last red onion into my bag, she yells, ‘Next!’

I heft the bag and leave before they approach.

All told, I have been shopping for an hour and a half.


What’s Changed and Stray Observations

At the risk of belaboring the point, a lot has changed: the mood, the experiences, the friendly and meaningless conversations, the personal relationships, where I shop, and even the items I buy. Where I once viewed grocery shopping as a positive and an almost meditative chore, it’s now the most dreaded and anxiety-inducing part of the week.

In no specific order, here are some things that I think have changed for me, and the better part of the shopping public:

  • I no longer shop at a store—even a business I otherwise love—if I’m not sure they have what I need.
  • Things I once took pride in (supporting local businesses, personal relationships with neighborhood shop owners) now take a back seat to two things: convenience and safety.
  • My opinion of the Pioneer Supermarket has completely changed—while I don’t enjoy shopping there, they’ve earned my trust, and the majority of my shopping budget.
  • If I can’t find something in a store, I don’t ask about it, I just skip it.
  • I don’t shop at stores that aren’t taking adequate safety measures.
  • No store is doing everything perfectly, but I have a new appreciation for the stores that put in more effort.
  • Store staff is almost completely unavailable, and while there don’t appear to be a lot of out of stocks, I still have issues finding products.
  • I don’t browse or purchase junk: I know exactly what I need and have grown thrifty because money is tighter than ever.


What My Experience Means

As stores begin to reopen and the laws across the country relax, retailers are in a position to capture and retain an entirely new audience without spending a single dollar on marketing. If budgets are instead put toward ensuring product availability, in-store experience, and training and hiring great staff, retailers can convert more shoppers like me into loyalists when the pandemic is over.

While I love to support local businesses and my favorite stores, I’ve trimmed nice-to-haves (like fancy produce or new vegan snacks) from my budget. It’s all about one-stop shopping, convenience, safety, and again, product availability.

And I don’t see that changing any time soon.


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