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Operating a grocery store in the COVID-19 era: A Q&A with Calgary Co-op's Ken Keelor

In this ongoing Q&A series, Canadian Grocer checks in with grocery store operators from across the country

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the grocery industry, and Canada’s food retailers have been forced to adapt quickly to keep staff and shoppers safe.

In an ongoing Q&A series, Canadian Grocer is checking in with grocery store operators from across the country to find out how they’re doing, how their job has changed over the last couple months, and what long-term impact COVID-19 will have on their business.

Here, we chat with Calgary Co-op chief executive officer Ken Keelor.

How has your average working day changed?

Calgary Co-op chief executive officer Ken Keelor.

Calgary Co-op chief executive officer Ken Keelor.

Most of our head office is working from home with a few of our team members coming in as needed. Our stores are working hard, following Alberta Health Services guidelines to ensure they are safe and our community has a safe place to shop. We have provided our team members with masks and gloves, Plexiglass shields, social distancing measures and a pay raise for those on the frontlines. We have reduced some store hours to allow for additional time for cleaning and restocking. Despite all of these changes, our teams are still providing exceptional experiences every day.

What shifts in consumer behaviour have you observed over the last month?

We have seen a number of shifts in the last month. Bigger baskets, but less trips to the stores, yet faster visits--big buggies that are filled quickly! We are also seeing less multiple store visits as people are adhering to advice from Alberta Health Services. This includes less families shopping, more single person shopping as they are representing the household. We are seeing more home cooking and baking, so more purchase of single ingredients for recipes--flour, yeast, salt, sugar, spices as well as increased stocking up of canned, frozen, meat for freezing. Finally, we are seeing fewer purchases of in-store prepared meals and less of a focus on "what’s on sale" and much more "what do I need to prepare meals."

What has been your biggest management challenge or concern? How do you keep staff in good spirits?

Our employees are on the frontlines working hard to help our community. We have made sure they have personal protective equipment including masks and gloves, Plexiglass barriers, social distancing measures in store and the latest information on what our company is doing to keep them and our members safe. They are our champions and so we launched the "Calgary Co-op Champions" program where all of our hourly front-line team members across all lines of business including union, pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and Home Health Care, are receiving an additional $2.50 per hour to recognize that they are going above and beyond to care for our members and community. We have also provided all team members with additional discounts and offers to allow them to shop and care for their families. And, we regularly share the positive feedback we are receiving from our members and the community so they know the important work they are doing has not gone unnoticed. They are our most important asset and we need to take care of them. 

What lessons have you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Along with the importance of taking care of our team members we have also learned a few other lessons along the way.

Being transparent: It is important for us to connect directly with our customers to let them know any changes we have made and any challenges we are facing. We have sent several emails to our members over the past few weeks to let them know about new measures in our stores and to let them know of positive employee cases we have had. It is important for us to build that trust and let them know that we can be relied upon to take care of them and be there for them when they need us the most.

Being flexible: As this situation unfolds, things are changing literally by the hour. We have really learned the importance of being ready to pivot quickly and respond to changing situations. Sometimes we need to act very quickly and as we say in our business … move at the speed of retail.

Being empathetic: This new world can be frightening or disorienting. We have learned the importance of listening to our team members and members. We work hard to be there for them and provide them with support and compassion. We are truly in this together and we need to take care of each other.

Prior to COVID-19, we saw consumers turning to grocery stores more than ever to fulfill their health and wellness needs. Will the pandemic change or increase your focus on health and wellness? 

We recognize the importance of offering a variety of health and wellness products for our members. Calgary Co-op had already been pivoting towards health and wellness, with pharmacy, Health Home Care, Natural Choice, and then the purchase of Community Natural Foods (CNF) prior to this crisis. COVID-19 will increase our focus, as we know customers will be even more conscious of their own health and wellbeing and will continue to want to do a one-stop shop with us. We plan to continue to expand the space allocated to health & wellbeing, and leverage the CNF brand to serve our customers. Customers can now order CNF products online and receive delivery conveniently at home. We plan to continue to expand our pharmacy services, including professional services.  Customers can currently receive their prescriptions at home through home delivery.



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