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5 Ways Grocers are Protecting Their Store Teams Through the Pandemic

Regardless of whether the stores in your chain are 16,000 or 135,000 square feet, keeping daily operations running smoothly is a big challenge under normal circumstances. That challenge is now Mount-Everest-sized due to a pandemic that no one at any level in your organization has experienced or trained for. Necessity is the mother of invention and during these trying times, grocers are rapidly adapting every aspect of their operations to protect and support their most valuable asset: their people.  Here are five ways that stand out.

The best way for grocers to support workers is by keeping them safe and the best way of keeping your people safe is by helping them keep their distance. . Grocers are adopting a few different tactics to give their teams some literal breathing room.


1. Control foot traffic

One way grocers are creating more space for their workers is by limiting how many shoppers are allowed in at once. Trader Joe’s has joined many other grocers in imposing caps on the number of shoppers allowed in at once to around 30-50. New Seasons Market (a Portland grocer) has taken this a step further with ““a digital process to allow customers to wait in their car or take a walk around the block at a comfortable distance.” The grocer is also asking that only one person per party enter to help minimize wait times. Not to be left out, Walmart has imposed a limit of 5 customers per 1,000 square feet. What does this look like in practice?  Walmart associates direct arriving customers to at a single entry door where fellow team members will count shoppers as they’re admitted one by one. Once a Walmart store reaches capacity, the rule is  one-in/one-out.

If you’re walking down a narrow aisle on your way to nab some tortilla chips and you see another shopper coming towards you, is it weird to sprint to your chips, make an e-brake u-turn, and hightail it out of there like Vin Diesel? Asking for a friend… Grocers recognize that it’s impossible to stand 6 feet away from someone when you’re walking past them in a 4 foot wide aisle, making the once everyday act of walking past someone in an aisle is a tense one. 

To create more space in their stores grocers have implemented a beautifully simple idea: one way aisles. This is accomplished in stores the same way it is on roads, with clear signage for drivers.

Multiple grocers (including Walmart, Hy-Vee, Kroger and Stop&Shop) have enacted this simple and sensible measure to create more space for everyone in the store.


2. ‘Dark’ stores limited to curbside pickup and delivery 

Shoppers are flooding grocers with delivery orders, with many being turned away due to a lack of delivery slots. Kroger is experimenting with a pickup-only store in Mount Carmel, Ohio to do exactly that. Dark stores are only open to employees devoted to fulfilling online orders. Converting an entire store to focus on click & collect and delivery relieves digital shopping backlogs and reduces the number of shoppers in a store to zero. What could be safer? 

Grocers like Hy-Vee and Walmart were testing dark stores last year. Whole Foods has followed in Kroger’s footsteps recently by converting some locations to dark stores.  This could be the new normal.


3. Screening to detect sick employees and offering paid time off 

Sick coworkers are no longer a nuisance but a serious threat. For hourly workers, the motivation to work through an illness is easy to understand. That’s why grocers are enacting policies that encourage sick employees to stay home. 

Walmart is screening workers for high temperatures and sending employees with temperatures above 100 degrees home with clear instructions: don’t come back to work until you’re fever-free for three days. Walmart and Sam’s Club (which is owned by Walmart) combine to employ over 5,000 people nationwide. CEO of both companies have been clear in telling their team to “never come to work when they don’t feel well.”

Encouraging sick employees to stay at home is only half the equation. Walmart, Lidl, Hy-Vee and other grocers have stepped up by adjusting their attendance policies and offering up to two weeks of paid time off for workers who test positive for COVID-19. This same protection applies to anyone who works at a store that is part of a government mandated quarantine. 

Local governments are still figuring out how to test large numbers of people, leaving grocers with the additional challenge of figuring out how to support employees who suspect they are infected but unable to get tested. Gavin Newsome, the governor of California, recently announced a statewide executive order giving food and grocery workers two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave.  This could signal an era where more grocers will start to offer paid sick leave to their store teams.


4. Dedicated clean teams and PPE

The best defense is a good offense. Grocers are fighting the virus by playing both. They’re going on the offensive by creating dedicated clean teams to sanitize carts and other high touch surfaces in stores.  At the same time, they’re also installing plexiglass shields to protect their cashiers. 

As far as PPE (personal protective equipment) goes, it’s a mixed bag. Walmart is providing masks for their workers. Kroger, Giant Food, and others are allowing their workers to wear masks and gloves. Some cities and states have gone so far as to mandate that everyone in a store from workers to shoppers wear masks. Some store associates are staging protests (accompanied by media coverage) due to a lack of PPE and other protective measures.


5. Hire additional help, increase pay for existing associates

This pandemic has forced grocers to adopt new operational measures (clean teams, social distancing enforcement) and policies like screening workers and encouraging those who are sick to stay at home. All of these factors necessitate hiring more help. Increased workloads, understaffed stores and inadequate sanitation can damage a brand and allow dangerous conditions to grow unchecked. Waiting two weeks to hire additional help is no longer a feasible option. 

Luckily, a large experienced labor pool is looking for work. Hotels, movie theaters, and restaurants have had to lay off or furlough thousands of people with customer service experience and food safety experience. Giants like Albertsons, as well as regional players like Sedano’s (Miami) and Rouses (New Orleans), are partnering with companies in these industries to bring on recently unemployed people who are ready to hit the ground running. In many cases grocers are able to shorten the hiring process from two weeks to one day and deliver much-needed help to their stores quicker. Savvy grocers may be able to retain the best and the brightest from this fresh wave of talent to stay on their teams long term.

Last but certainly not least is higher pay. Grocers recognize that the job today is harder in every way than it was before this pandemic. They’re expressing that recognition with  bonuses and higher pay. Kroger awarded one time bonuses of $300 to their full time associates in March, with part-timers getting $150. Other major chains like Target, Albertsons and H-E-B announced $2 increases in hourly pay. 

Challenging times are difficult but they won’t last forever. Grocers who understand this are seizing this moment to build trust and affinity with their teams, which spills over into the general public. Memories made during crises are permanently seared into our brains. People will always remember what it felt like to work for you and shop in your stores during this pandemic. The actions you take to support your team will continue to bear fruit long after normal life resumes. 

Interested in additional ways in which you can help your store teams? To learn how you can help your store teams stay ahead of the drastic week-to-week shifts in shopper behavior caused by Covid-19, check out this webinar.

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