Grocery stores adapt to pandemic with deliveries, curbside pickup, shopper limits

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  • Trader Joe's in Hadley was capping the number of patrons who could enter the store at 30 on Saturday. Wait times in the line, which expanded and contracted depending on how much social distance each shopper allowed, were short, with one person reporting five minutes and another, 15. An employee facilitating the line said that inside the store it was calm and that only every other register was open to ensure social distancing. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rich Cooper, owner of Coopers Corner and State Street market, stocks shelves at State Street market Tuesday, March 17, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/24/2020 7:59:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As COVID-19 cases continue to increase across the United States, concepts such as curbside pickup, hazard pay, and store hours for senior citizens and those with immunodeficiency disorders have become increasingly common to protect shoppers and employees.

Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, grocery stores provide an essential service but also increase risk of exposure to the virus. Crowded aisles can make it difficult for shoppers to stay the recommended 6 feet apart from one another, and the virus can linger on some surfaces for days or spread through respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. Now, many grocery stores and their customers are rethinking the way they shop — and for those who have yet to make lifestyle adjustments, public health officials are urging people to stay home and socially isolate as much as possible.

In an effort to mitigate the risks associated with grocery runs, local stores and chains such as River Valley Co-Op, Stop & Shop, Big Y and Whole Foods have announced early morning hours set aside for those at the highest risk of severe infection, such as senior citizens or people with certain pre-existing health conditions, and delivery services and curbside pickup orders have also spiked at both supermarkets and small businesses. In Hadley, Trader Joe’s is allowing just 30 people into the store at once while other customers wait spaced apart in line outside the store.

Corner stores

At some small businesses, such as Cooper’s Corner in Florence and State Street Fruit Store in downtown Northampton, staff are seeing new faces and larger purchases as people seek other ways to avoid crowded aisles. According to Richard Cooper, owner of Cooper’s Corner and State Street Fruit Store, the businesses have seen higher than usual traffic and an increase of transactions ranging from $200 to $400.

“We never see that except in the wine store and on holidays,” Cooper said of the larger purchases. Store traffic spiked about 45% higher than usual last Friday and Saturday after an already busy week, Cooper said, and though these numbers are starting to decrease, they remain well above normal traffic expectations.

But even with increase patronage, the pandemic has posed “a lot of challenges” to the store, said Cooper, noting that suppliers are limiting delivery dates and the amount of goods that stores can purchase at once. While a main grocery provider for the stores used to deliver around 400 cases, the limit per order is now just over 300 cases, according to Cooper, adding that while the provider used to deliver six days a week, it now delivers every other day.

Many items are also out of stock, Cooper said — notoriously elusive items like cleaning products and paper goods, in addition to food items such as flour, yeast and certain canned beans.

Cooper’s employees are among those receiving compensation for the increased stress and health risks they now face as they work through the pandemic. Through at least the end of April, employees will receive an additional $1.50 added to their hourly pay.

“We’re using it more as a reward for the employees and not as an incentive to work,” Cooper said. “We’re telling them, ‘If you don’t feel well or for any reason feel that you shouldn’t be out … please, stay home. Your job is secure, you can come back when you’re ready. But if you’re able to work, willing and healthy, we’re going to pay you this bonus, because it’s a stressful time.”

Atkins Farms Country Market in Amherst has also experienced an increase in customers that has just started to lighten.

“We’re keeping our shelves fairly well stocked,” said part owner Kelly Lannon. “Some deliveries got canceled the last couple weeks, but most of them are still coming in regularly. We’re receiving most of our complete orders as well.”

Like other businesses offering curbside pickup and delivery, the store’s curbside pickup and home delivery service has been “very popular,” Lannon said, adding, “It didn’t take long to catch on.”

At River Valley Co-op in Northampton, the store temporarily halted curbside pickup to keep up with high demand, according to an email sent to customers.

‘Unprecedented demand’

While smaller stores may be noting an increase in business, supermarkets like Stop & Shop continue to see intensified traffic. Employees are working to replenish shelves in response to this increased demand, said Stop & Shop spokeswoman Maura O’Brien.

The company is installing clear plastic guards at registers and the pharmacy to enforce social distancing and keep 6 feet between customers and employees.

The store’s delivery services have also seen “unprecedented demand,” O’Brien said, leading to “higher than normal delivery wait times” in some areas.

“Our teams are working incredibly hard to ensure our home delivery systems are running smoothly so that you can continue to receive orders when you need them,” O’Brien said.

She also advised that customers can choose a contact-free delivery option, where a driver texts or emails a customer on arrival and leaves the bags on the doorstep or in the building entryway.

All existing hourly union associates will receive a 10 percent pay increase to their hourly wage, O’Brien said, in recognition of “the tremendous work that our associates are doing to serve our communities during the COVID-19 emergency.” The company is also “ensuring that associates are offered flexible hours to ensure they are able to balance work and home life due to school and child care facility closures,” O’Brien added.

“Spending necessary time away from work because of COVID-19 will not put Stop & Shop associates’ jobs at risk,” she said.

‘Limit crowding’

But it’s not only businesses and their employees who can combat the spread of COVID-19 in grocery stores, said David Gottsegen, a pediatrician at Holyoke Pediatric Associates. At the Big Y near his office in South Hadley, Gottsegen said he has been concerned to see that the parking lot is consistently crowded, creating more opportunities for the virus to spread. With limited testing availability, he added, it’s possible for seemingly healthy people to go to the store and spread the virus without even realizing they carry it.

To limit this possibility, Gottsegen advised customers to “try to do things differently” to protect employees, each other and themselves. “Go to places that have curbside pickup, look into home delivery … do anything possible to limit crowding.

“Go to smaller stores where there’s fewer people,” he added. “That also benefits our local businesses.”

Businesses can also do their part through measures such as those enacted at Trader Joe’s, he said, where only a limited number of customers are allowed in at a time or offering curbside pickup and delivery options.

“We need to take this very seriously,” Gottsegen said. “Much more seriously than the federal government is taking it. The facts are, we need social distancing, we need more testing and then we need to do everything possible to be kind and to help each other.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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