As consumers, we see the front end of the shopping experience. Those who are still choosing to shop in person wait their turn to enter stores or banks which are limiting the number of customers inside. At grocery stores, we are getting used to hand-washing stations, having carts wiped down and refraining from touching items if we are not actually buying them.
But there is a lot of pressure on all grocery stores and butcher shops to meet demand, which has increased by about 50 per cent, since families have been staying at home due to the coronavirus situation. People working from home, college and university students now at home and students who have been at home since the March break, coupled with some restaurant closures, have lead to people cooking meals at home and perhaps: eating a bit more than usual.
This week, we thought we would talk to the owner of one of our busiest grocery stores to see what changes has been happening behind the scenes. The store employs 106 people — a combination of full-time and part-time workers.
Daniel Asselin, who owns Asselin Independent Grocer in Hawkesbury, says that everything has changed, on almost every front.
Communication with the head office includes three conference calls per day, with one of those a major call.
Independent Grocer, which launched online shopping several months ago, has seen online ordering increase by five times. From about 45 orders per week, store staff are now filling about 300 orders each week.
“Our staff members have really stepped up. We have a routine in place and we have a night crew picking orders at night. From four or five people, we have increased to as many as 19 people assembling online grocery orders. We have been doing a lot of training because things are not just changing from day to day, but hour by hour,” Asselin says.
As staff continue to fill about 55 orders a day (it takes about one hour to prepare an online order for pick-up), staff are still adjusting.
In addition, although the supply chain is strong, Asselin says that many plants are still in the process of gearing up to meet the higher demands. There is training and increased pressure on all sides. He adds that sometimes, a load of inventory can be 72 hours late — and that means that it’s a possibility for a shelf to be empty for a brief time.
“Right now, our shelves are stocked at 78 to 80 per cent,” he said. “If we don’t have what customers are looking for, they buy something else and then we have a lower inventory of that new item for a while. It’s a ripple effect,” he explained.
There is enough food, he says, but demand has gone up for basic essentials.
So, what are we buying?
Daniel Asselin answers this question easily.
“Meat. That’s the first thing. People are buying protein. They are also buying food from the frozen food aisles. People are planning ahead when they go to the grocery store,” he said.
Second on the list is baking supplies. People are buying flour and all the essentials to bake at home. Third on the list are canned goods.
And it’s no surprise that snack foods are high on everyone’s shopping list right now.
Are we actually eating more right now?
“I think so,” answers Asselin. Given that some restaurants are closed and although take-out is available, Asselin points out that with kids at home, they are always looking for food.
“I know, because we have kids at home. And also, when people take their lunch to work, it is a fixed quantity, but when you are home all day, there is a tendency to eat a bit more,” Asselin conjectures.
“The first week, I know that staff members were nervous, but they know their jobs are secure and many are happy to still have a job,” he says. A top-up of $2 per hour has been put in place and many are working overtime, but Asselin says he makes sure that everyone gets the time off that they need in order to rest.
Other measures include allowing only 90 customers into the store at a time and for now, the store has only 80 large carts available. “Once those carts are gone, we lock the doors,” Asselin said. They are also recommending that people come in when they really need to do shopping. Grocery shopping should not be an everyday activity during this time.
He understands that people may only need a few items. “But that person who needs three items will take a cart and we have to sanitize completely for each customer and it means someone who has come to the store because they need lot of groceries might have to wait a bit longer,” Asselin explained.
Although he had already been working at a grocery store for eight years when he took over from previous owners Rhéal and Norma-Jean Laurin in August 2019, he says he never thought he would ever be facing a situation like this.
“I do know the shopping habits of our customers, but right now, it is a case of trying to keep up,” he said, adding that the direct distribution system for inventory means that he cannot, for example, order three trailer-loads of toilet paper.
“Our company is working in a more collaborative sense, aiming to distribute supplies equally to all of the stores so that we don’t have one store going without while another store has plenty,” Asselin said.
Having students return to a home schooling regimen means he may be losing a lot of staff, as students have been supplementing his roster lately. But by now, he and his staff are used to change; they just need the cooperation of customers.
His wife is a teacher and has been at home lately.
“She is the pillar right now. She really keeps our home a calm haven for us to get away from the hectic everyday stress,” says Asselin, who says that working under all of the extra pressure means he is tired by the time 8 p.m. rolls around. He imagines it must be the save for all of his dedicated employees.
Asselin says he is following guidelines in every respect but feels that the provincial government should put some standards in place for stores which are staying open at this time.
“We are mostly receiving praise through the roof,” he says, but there are some who don’t like the rules put in place by Independent Grocer.
“If anyone gets out of hand, our staff are told to call a manager right away and we are ready to call the police when needed. We have really good in-house police here that do a tremendous job,” he commented, adding that these are times of exceptional stress for everyone, including for staff and for customers.
“We have our rules to follow and if people don’t want to follow them, I am saying what in most circumstances would be unthinkable and that is — ‘Maybe you don’t want to shop here’. Our first priority is our staff; they come first.”
Asselin says the store and staff will continue to regroup and meet changes as they come.
Dealing with changes on every front, every day, has become the new normal, it seems.