retail news in context, analysis with attitude

CNN reports that even as dozens of supermarket employees around the country have died from the Covid-19 coronavirus, "supermarkets have resisted the most draconian policy: banning customers from coming inside."  But now, "some worker experts, union leaders and small grocery owners believe it has become too dangerous to let customers browse aisles, coming into close range with workers. Grocery stores are still flooded with customers, and experts say it's time for large chains to go 'dark' to the public and convert to curbside pickup and home delivery for food and other essential goods."

The story notes that "public safety officials are not requiring essential stores to shut down to customers, but the US Labor Department last week recommended that retailers start 'using a drive-through window or offering curbside pick-up' to protect workers for exposure to coronavirus.  The California Department of Industrial Relations said this week that companies should 'encourage customer use of online order and pickup'."

CNN goes on:

"Companies are making their own safety rules as the federal government stands aside

Some big grocers are slowly starting to move in this direction. Whole Foods has closed down a store in New York City's Bryant Park area and transitioned it into an online-only store, focused solely on deliveries. Kroger and Giant Eagle have switched a few stores to pickup and delivery-only locations.

"But these are a fraction of stores in their wide networks. And most large chains have hesitated to shut down to the public. Instead, they are implementing more limited policies like taking workers' temperatures and restricting the number customers inside stores at a time. Companies are calling on families to cut back on their trips to the store and shop alone if they can.

"City and state governments are stepping in to force stricter safety measures than the companies have adopted. Los Angeles, Miami, Washington DC, New Jersey, Maryland and New York have ordered shoppers to wear masks or face coverings in stores. Vermont has required big box chains like Walmart to close down their 'non-essential' sections like furniture, home and garden equipment and arts and crafts."

KC's View:

There would be problems associated with such a major shift in policy.  For one thing, it would cost retailers a lot more to have enough employees to do all the shopping for their customers.  It would probably mean charging some sort of fee for the service, or marking up merchandise costs to compensate.  That wouldn't be good for low-income shoppers, who would be disadvantaged by higher prices and fees.  And, it wouldn't be a perfect solution - employees and customers would still interact to some degree.

But … if stores adopted a Subscribe & Save-style replenishment model - helping customers easily obtain, either via pickup or delivery, regularly purchased items (especially CPGs) on a subscription basis - it might help alleviate some of the stresses and actually turn this into an opportunity and selling point.

There's also another problem.  Some elected officials and business leaders are pushing for the economy to be opened up, at least in some areas of the country, and there is something discordant about beaches and theme parks being opened in some sections of the country and supermarkets being closed in others.  As has been pointed out by a number of health experts, the virus doesn't understand or respect borders or rules, and so these two approaches could end up working against each other.

That said … one of the things I noticed at Stew Leonard's this weekend was the number of people who were not respecting physical distancing, who pushed through and ignored six-feet-apart recommendations and even got impatient with those of us trying to be respectful.   (And Stew's has been about as transparent and emphatic as possible about explaining how to shop safely.)  And I've noticed the same thing at Whole Foods, where some people just ignore the highly visible signs about one-way aisles.  (They mostly seem to be Fairfield County, Connecticut, women who drive Range Rovers, don't wear face masks, and have hair that seems suspiciously coiffed at a time when the salons are all closed.  But I may be painting with a broad and cynical brush here.)

Turning supermarkets into dark stores would be a radical move.  But as the story points out, it is a move that already is taking place to some degree.  Companies like Sedano's in Florida were doing it before the pandemic, and companies like Kroger, Giant Eagle and Whole Foods have done it since it erupted.  No reason to think that, one way or another, the trend won't continue even in a post-pandemic world.