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Operating a grocery store in the COVID-19 era: A Q&A with The Sweet Potato’s Digs Dorfman

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.

First up, The Sweet Potato's founder and co-owner Digs Dorfman:

The Sweet Potato's founder and co-owner Digs Dorfman.

The Sweet Potato's founder and co-owner Digs Dorfman.

How has your average working day changed?

I flew back to Toronto from a vacation in Mexico on March 13, and have been self-isolating ever since. Before COVID-19, I would start most days in the main office at work, with the odd morning at the Ontario Food Terminal. Now I start every day from my home office, usually with several Zoom Meetings. There's very little division between home and work life. Even though I'm working from home, I often work long hours and find myself doing bits and pieces at all hours of the day. It's a bit calmer now, and we've settled into some kind of a semblance of routine, but for a few weeks, every day brought a new form of chaos--supply chain issues, safety measures, and increased sales with steadily decreasing on-site staff as more and more people elected to self-isolate.

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

We were already in the process of investing significant time and resources into online grocery, but COVID-19 has really sped up our timeline. We were originally planning on launching our in-house delivery service in September, but now we're launching in June. As well, we've recently started a click-and-collect service and it's been a huge hit almost overnight, sometimes with phenomenally large basket sizes. We're dropping orders directly in people's trunks, which has been popular because of the increased level of safety it provides.

Have you increased investment in online grocery to keep up with demand during COVID-19?

Yes, significantly. We're in the process of building a fulfillment area in our back room to speed up the process, as well as investing in new staff and new technology like hand scanners.

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

Basket size has gone way up. Though we're limiting the number of customers in our store at one time, the average ring at the register is almost double what it used to be. Customers are also being good about shopping alone to allow the maximum number of individual shoppers in the store at one time. We normally have entire families shopping together all the time, and now we only have one or two couples per day.

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

I'm not so sure that the impact will be permanent, but for a while, our traffic flow went up so much that we discontinued all end-caps and just used the space to drop skids of high volume product. We've closed our full-service meat counter, as well as our self-service bulk and coffee sections, which we've replaced with pre-packed product. We're also selling fabric masks for the first time.

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