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How Canadian grocery is dealing with COVID-19

From closing in-store seating areas to hourly cart cleaning, grocers are doing what they can to protect employees and consumers
Shutterstock/Trong Nguyen

Grocers are taking steps to address the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19—from building up inventory in important categories to increasing store cleaning and disinfecting efforts—amid growing signs of consumer unease.

The Retail Council of Canada has also created an online information hub aimed at providing members with practical information to ensure the health and safety of customers and employees.

While some companies are urging employees to work from home as fears about the spread of the coronavirus escalate, that’s not a viable option for Canada’s $615 billion retail industry. Grocery accounts for a significant number of the 2.1 million people who work in Canadian retail said Jason McLinton, vice-president, grocery division and regulatory affairs with the RCC.

McLinton said the RCC remained in regular contact with government bodies such as the Public Health Agency of Canada about the coronavirus and the steps required to take to mitigate its effect. “What continues to be the top priority is the health and safety of employees and consumers,” said McLinton.

READ: Grocers prepare as concern over coronavirus grows

Toronto independent The Sweet Potato has implemented a long list of measures aimed at ensuring customer and employee safety according to co-founder and co-owner Digs Dorfman. They include stopping the collection of all black plastic and bottle returns, and no longer allowing customers to bring their own bulk containers.

The store has also temporarily halted all in-store demos and sampling, as well as in-person meetings with suppliers. It has also closed its in-store seating area and ordered the immediate suspension of self-serve coffee and soup. It is also bagging bakery items including croissants and pretzel buns, and has created a staffed service area for its bulk department.

Additional preventative measures include the installation of hand sanitizer stations in four spots throughout the store and hiring a janitor to regularly clean exposed surfaces. It is also cleaning all of its shopping carts/baskets hourly, and is offering wipes so that customers can clean surfaces themselves.

“We will continue to update this list daily, but for now we feel this is fairly comprehensive,” said Dorfman, who told Canadian Grocer he planned to self-quarantine for 14 days upon returning from a vacation in Mexico. “We are committed to doing anything we can to limit the spread of the virus.”

Several of the grocers contacted for this story declined to comment, as did the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. Canadian Grocer also visited the websites and social media feeds of several of the country’s leading grocery chains, none of which contained customer information about COVID-19 as of Thursday evening.

That’s not to say retailers aren’t working to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, however. There have been multiple reports of Costco stores distributing alcohol wipes at entrances so that customers can clean the handles of shopping carts, for example, and cashiers at some grocery stores are reportedly using rubber gloves to handle money and food items.

T&T Supermarkets is one of the few Canadian grocers to address the subject publicly, with CEO Tina Lee issuing a statement outlining the company’s efforts—which range from increasing store cleaning and frequently disinfecting shopping carts and baskets, to constantly sterilizing self-serve handles and providing hand sanitizer in high-traffic areas.

Lee also noted T&T is building up inventory for the most important categories, though she acknowledged complications stemming from “supply chain issues.” Responding to stories about stores dramatically increasing the price for in-demand items, Lee stressed T&T would maintain the “same value-for-money prices, no matter what happens in the coming weeks.”

Speaking with AM 640 Toronto’s The John Oakley Show earlier this week, Karl Littler, the RCC’s senior vice-president of public affairs, urged consumers to have some perspective and stressed there was no need for people to stockpile grocery items.

“This issue about stocking up has got away from us a little bit,” he said. “We’re not talking about heading into the hills with a couple of shotguns and 48 cases of beans. We’re talking about making sure you’ve got enough Advil and paper towel on hand for a matter of a few weeks.”

In a March 6 note to vendor partners provided to Canadian Grocer, Peter Brennan, president of food distributor UNFI Canada, said the company was monitoring demand on a daily basis and adjusting forward buys to ensure that higher-demand items remain in stock.

Brennan noted incremental inventory had been ordered on key products expected to see “significant demand changes” including water, canned goods and meal replacement products.

The organization also said it had taken several precautionary measures, including an advance review of picking and shipments in the event of a reduced number of drivers and warehouse workers; making preparations for managing order processing and customer care remotely; and reducing work travel for employees to minimize face-to-face connections.

But on Thursday, with North America’s major sports leagues having announced the suspension of their season and the announcement that Ontario public schools would be closed for two weeks after March Break, consumer unease around COVID-19 seemed to be growing.

Both Loblaws and No Frills were among the top trending topics on Twitter Thursday, with people noting lengthy lineups to get into some downtown Toronto stores, and posting pictures of aisles packed with customers and shelves emptied of staples such as toilet paper and pasta. One poster described her nearby No Frills store as a “pulsating mass of anxiety,” with checkout lines stretching around the store and half-empty shelves.

680 News noted there had been reports of line-ups outside the Fiesta Farms store in downtown Toronto, and a Superstore location in North Toronto had limited toilet paper to two packs per family.

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