Supermarkets rise to the occasion to keep people nourished
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles on the response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Retailers have always been at their best during a time of crisis, when their communities need them the most.
What is different this time is the sheer geographic scope of the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, with a natural disaster the impacted area is more limited in size, and retailers from outside the area are quick to pitch in and help. That kind of mutual assistance is happening today, but much of it consists of sharing best practices around strategies like the redeployment of labor throughout the store, customer flow control methods, person-to-person protocols and sanitation practices. One of our roles at FMI is to give our members the opportunity to get on the phone to ask questions and share experiences.
Retailers and manufacturers are deploying different protocols and contingency plans in order to be able to continue to take care of their communities while keeping their customers and their employees safe.
Retailers are putting decals on the floor to help shoppers practice physical distancing and minimizing human contact. They are practicing hand washing and increased their cleaning and sanitation of high-touch areas such as buttons and door handles.
Some of these ideas are the result of lessons learned from our members with global operations. We have members with stores in China and Italy and they’ve been able to share, those insights with us.
IGA has its global headquarters in Wuhan, China, and the company shared what it was like to operate in a region that was at the epicenter of the pandemic.
Retailers continue to focus on keeping store shelves stocked to meet the needs of their customers. The unprecedented spike in demand from consumers has put pressure on the supply chain, but this is a demand issue and not a supply issue. Retailers are working with manufacturers to get needed products to stores faster. To achieve this goal, suppliers are focused on manufacturing the most important SKUs to consumers and suspending slower-moving pack sizes, flavors and scents.
To ensure an efficient food supply during this pandemic, FMI and the International Foodservice Distributors Association created an new ad hoc partnership that is a matching program that connects foodservice distributors that have excess capacity (products, transportation services, warehousing services) to assist food retailers and wholesalers that require additional resources to fulfill needs at grocery stores, which are experiencing skyrocketing demand. This partnership has expanded recently to include the United Fresh Produce, National Fisheries Institute and North American Meat Institute.
To ensure grocery stores and their supply chain partners maintain daily operations to serve their customers, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency included food and agriculture and transportation and logistics among its essential, critical infrastructure.
FMI is working with government agencies on WIC and SNAP benefits, making sure that there’s access and adequate product. And speaking of people in need, we also can’t forget about food banks. Much of the food that comes to food banks comes through the grocery retail industry. We’re working with our industry and asking companies to consider other ways they can support food banks, including financial donations that allow those food banks to purchase the food they need.
Another important group to remember is our drivers — we don’t get any food to our stores without drivers. We have people who are putting in long hours on the road and unfortunately some of the closures that have occurred have affected truck stops, making it difficult for drivers to stop for food. Their rigs are too big for the drive-through, and the dine-in restaurants are closed.
So we’ve had conversations with the National Restaurant Association about fast-food outlets and what procedures can be put in place to accommodate these truck drivers, perhaps by allowing them to walk up to the drive-through window to get something to eat. We’ve already heard of truck stops that are reopening, and fast-food restaurants that are accommodating drivers. I heard about one that actually built steps so that someone can walk up the steps and hand the food to the truck driver in the cab.
I am honored to work in an industry that continues to rise to the occasion; I am humbled by this industry’s service and dedication to the citizens of our country. I know the food and consumer products industry is doing its very best to give shoppers food and basic necessities to navigate their lives during this uncertain time.
Doug Baker is vice president of industry relations at the Food Industry Association (FMI).