(CNW Group/Empire Company Limited)
"We never looked at ourselves as an essential service before. You knew people needed to eat and wanted to come to your store … now suddenly it’s different and people’s health and perhaps lives are at stake and suddenly the stakes are higher," said Empire CEO Michael Medline when discussing the grocery company's response in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Medline kicked off Retail Council of Canada's online series, In Conversation with Retail Leaders in Canada, and walked listeners through some of the grocery company's framework for decision-making during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Empire's risk team started to put a COVID-19 response plan in place on Jan. 27, said Medline, which is the same day Ontario Health officials confirmed Canada’s first presumptive case of the novel coronavirus. The plan included installing Plexiglass shields for checkout counters--an idea that came from a call with international grocers, he said.
"While on that call we made the order we're going to put Plexiglass in every store in the country," said Medline. "We started 24 hours later. We flew it all over the place and within two to three weeks we had Plexiglass in every store."
The safety and sanitization products and procedures put in place to help keep shoppers and front-line staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in place for the foreseeable future, he said.
"Right now we don't know if we're past or if we're in the eye of the storm and we're about to hit again, or hit again soon or in the fall or the winter, and I think we owe it to our teammates and customers not to let down our guard," said Medline.
"There's a predilection to open up and not physically distance in the store and not keep up all the protocols, and from our perspective that's a mistake and we're seeing it in some places, not in our business, but you can see people are letting up a bit and I think that's dangerous right now," added Medline.
The food industry has taken some body blows during COVID-19, he said. At points over the last few months, the company was "probably hanging on by a thread" as it contended with the possibility of U.S.-Canada border closures, food shortages and staffing issues, he said.
Empire made it through these tough times thanks, in part, to the efforts made by supplier partners, who Medline called the "unsung heroes" of grocery. "These supplier partners who got us the food and the logistics and the transportation and the distribution centres--wow."
Medline said the relationship between grocery retailers and supplier partners "has been way more adversarial than I’m used to" but a positive outcome of COVID-19 could be strengthened alliances between the two parties.
"I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we have to work together and I think this will help actually," he said. "We realize we need each other. We realize how great the majority of our suppliers have been through this crisis."