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Operating a grocery store in the COVID-19 era: A Q&A with Walmart Canada's Haio Barbeito

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.

Next, we chat with Walmart Canada president and chief executive officer Haio Barbeito.

Walmart Canada president and CEO Haio Barbeito.

How has your average working day changed?

It’s not business as usual, and the way I work has definitely changed. I’m still connecting with the business all the time, just a little bit differently. I have more video conference calls than I did before and I’m working primarily out of my home office. I have been visiting stores, while respecting physical distancing. This has been a bit of an adjustment, but we’re all doing the very best we can. I’ve been very impressed with how well our team has adapted to the new working realities.

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

Demand for online grocery orders through continues to be very high. We’ve seen a significant jump in the numbers of customers ordering groceries online and this trend will likely continue post COVID-19. Our team is now fulfilling tens of thousands of orders a day. We have increased our capacity by three times, and more pickup and delivery timeslots are opening store-by-store every day. We’re also expanding our grocery pickup service to more than 60 stores and are working closely with key service providers including Cornershop and Instacart. Additionally, many of the 10,000 new associates we’re hiring will support our online grocery business. Suffice to say, online grocery has been a huge priority for us. We don’t see it slowing down and are doing everything we can to offer the very best experience for our customers.

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

Yes, we are investing significantly in this space. We’re taking bold steps to meet the increase in demand by accelerating our expansion of online grocery pickup and delivery across the country. We’re also hiring more grocery pickers and fulfillment associates to support this part of the business. By the end of April, we will have expanded our grocery pickup service to 60 new stores. We are supporting key service providers, including Cornershop and Instacart, and ensuring their experience servicing our customers is as smooth as possible. There is definitely more to come as the demand for online grocery will only continue to rise.

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

It is too early to say which measures we will keep. We will continuing working closely with public health officials and analyze each measure independently so we can make the very best decision for our associates and customers.

As a refresher, our stores do look different today. We’ve made changes quickly to prioritize safety and to ensure customers can access the resources they need at the low prices they expect and deserve. For example, we have:

  • Increased cleaning throughout the store.

  • Limited the number of customers shopping in the store at one time and are asking stores to encourage customers to limit store entry to only one adult per family.

  • Installed Plexiglass dividers at registers, customer service desks and in our pharmacies--with more to come.

  • Marked the floor to promote physical distancing and one-way traffic flow.

  • Temporarily closed high-touch areas such as photo kiosks, service deli and service bakery, fitting rooms and bulk foods.

  • We’ve started implementing associate temperatures checks in our distribution centres and are starting to roll out the program for associate in our stores as well.

  • Distributing voluntary PPE masks and gloves for associates and strongly recommending that associates wear masks while at work.

What has been the biggest challenge in terms of staffing and employee management? How do you keep staff in good spirits?

There have certainly been challenges as we’re dealing with unprecedented times. Every business has their own unique needs and are facing disruption--Walmart is no different. Some of the challenges we're facing include having many of our corporate support teams work remotely. We’ve been focused on ensuring people are staying connected with each other and managing their overall wellness.

I’ve been very proud of how our team and the stores are managing. It’s Walmart at its best. Our associates truly show our Walmart spirit by rising to the challenge of these unprecedented times. I continue to be amazed by the stories I’m hearing from around the country. Every day there’s a story about an amazing team or associate on our internal social media site or that we share on our external channels.

I’m also very pleased that we’ve been able to step-up in the community as well. Our recent Fight Hunger. Spark Change campaign was extended to support Canadians in these times of need. The campaign contributed a record breaking 17 million meals to Food Banks Canada. We also donated an additional $1 million, shared between Food Banks Canada and the Canadian Red Cross.

I’m so proud our of our team and their support of our customers, our communities and each other. And, the many thoughtful messages from our customers and other front-line workers continue to inspire and motivate us to keep doing what we’re doing every day.

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