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Operating a grocery store in the COVID-19 era: A Q&A with Georgia Main's Gary Sorenson

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 catch up with Gary Sorenson, president and chief operating officer of Georgia Main Food Group Limited, which operates the IGA franchise and Fresh Street Market stores in B.C.

How has your average working day changed?

In the grocery industry there are no average days. Each day has its challenges and successes that make working in our industry exciting. However, in the last few months the typical day for anyone in the grocery industry has changed and perhaps changed forever. Speaking on behalf of our company, Georgia Main Food Group, from the early beginnings of the pandemic we needed to respond and make crucial decisions quickly, introducing fundamental measures to keep our staff and customers safe. We continue to actively monitor what is required of us from the provincial health authority, while also being proactive on certain measures when it comes to reorganizing the operational aspects of our stores. We are learning from others on what to do next or leading by example, through concepts, communication and execution.

COVID-19 has accelerated online grocery shopping. What does this mean for your business?

At our Fresh St. Market stores we have been operating online grocery shopping for the past five years, so we had a strong foothold in this area of our business. At our IGA stores throughout B.C., we had just launched our Click 'n Collect online service in the fall of 2019, so we were just getting it off the ground when e-commerce exploded in March. Our original plan for both banners was to grow the business over the next five years, learning along the way and making sure we had positive organic growth. That has all changed. Overnight, we were doing sales figures that we thought were years away. We had demands for our service and overnight we needed to adjust our operating model and hire far more staff members for Click 'n Collect than we anticipated. For the future, we believe there will be a slight decrease in the overall number of online shoppers, but at the same time we anticipate a large number of our customers staying with us for online shopping.

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

The last month has been the most interesting in my career. We have gone from an initial and unexpected hoarding mentality of shopping, to now seeing a more controlled shopping habit from our customers. At store level we now have a saying: "Our customers and staff have found a new rhythm in grocery shopping." We feel that because our stores have a smaller footprint than most of our competitors, we can offer our customers an experience that is comfortable and dedicated to only grocery shopping. Consumers are not browsing anymore. Customers know what they want and are focused on one aspect of their trip and that is simply getting their groceries.

What safety protocols have you put in place that you will keep post COVID-19?

Starting in late February we started to put plans in place at all of our stores. Our first and immediate measure was to initiate increased cleaning protocols. This was followed by over 35 additional safety protocols including: the use of Plexiglass shields at checkouts, hand sanitizer stations, limits on the number of customers shopping, floor signs indicating social distancing and one way arrows for aisles. We continue to examine and re-evaluate every day--is there anything we have missed and what can we do better? Some of these ideas come from our staff or store leaders and other ideas come from our customers.

How will COVID-19 change the way you merchandise your store? How will it impact your product assortment?

We have already been re-evaluating the layout of our current stores and future stores. Do we have enough space for proper movement of customers and staff? Do we need to remove self-serve offerings and develop a more comprehensive service offering? Do we need to redesign merchandising fixtures to increase grocery selection options for our customers? These are the type of questions we think about daily. We know we will need to act on some decisions now and many more in the future.

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