Grocery stores: Record demand for pickup and delivery, what comes next?
Grocery shopping in south central Pennsylvania has become an adventure amid the novel coronavirus.
It requires donning a mask, sanitizing a cart with a disinfecting wipe, and following arrows on the floor to help maintain social distancing while inside. Or, it entails scrambling to score a pickup or delivery time, both of which are now in high demand.
Stores limit the number of customers who can enter. Employees frequently wipe down belts, cash registers, and credit card terminals. New sneeze guards have been installed to help protect associates and customers.
Self-service items, such as soup and salad bars, and loose bakery items, are no longer available. Customers have to select pre-sliced meats, or place an order for slicing, and choose wrapped baked goods.
Some local supermarkets and grocery stores say it's too early to tell what the shopping experience will be like in the future, but the pandemic already has changed how stores and customers are doing business.
It's putting more of a focus on eating at home as a family, and grocery stores are providing quality food at prices that fit within the family budget, said Eric B. White, director of marketing and communications for Redner's Markets, which has stores in eastern Pennsylvania, including Lebanon County.
Pickup and delivery explodes
Supermarkets, such as Weis Markets Inc. and The Giant Company, have offered pickup and home delivery long before the pandemic hit, but these days, it's even more relevant to customers.
"We've seen record demand for our Weis 2 Go online ordering w/curbside pickup over the past two months," spokesman Dennis Curtin said in an email. "We expect that to continue and grow in the months ahead."
Giant, which operates Martin's, Giant Heirloom Market, Giant Direct and Martin's Direct, described the demand as unprecedented, and order sizes grow each week, spokeswoman Ashley Flower said. Available slots are limited and go fast as they are released each day. The chain is working to expand capacity.
Grocery delivery and pickup:How, where to get your goods in central Pennsylvania
Others, such as Hollabaugh Bros., Inc. in Adams County, began offering curbside pickup when the pandemic hit.
"This is the impetus we needed to say now is the time," said Kay Hollabaugh, one of the owners.
It was almost like starting a new business, but they found it to be very successful, she said.
Busy stores, hard-to-find items
Keeping the shelves stocked during the pandemic has been a challenge at times.
Things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer fly off the shelves.
"The supermarkets are bursting at the seams with business," said Gary Gristick, an owner of Zweiers in Lebanon County.
Some stores, such as Giant, recently announced they were hiring 3,000 additional employees to help keep up with the demand for groceries.
Weis also hired more employees and is paying an additional $2 an hour to hourly store associates, Curtin said.
One of the biggest problems grocers face is getting products from suppliers. Clorox wipes, for example, will not be fully available until the summer. If Zweiers receives the disinfecting wipes and puts them out, the product is gone within five to 10 minutes, Gristick said.
From the big chain supermarkets to the smaller community stores, grocers have looked for new ways to get some of their products during the pandemic.
In the midst of the extreme demand for paper products and sanitizer, Weis occasionally reached out to new suppliers, Curtin said. But for the most part, it's worked with its existing national, regional and local partners, including Pennsylvania farmers.
Giant, too, worked with alternative suppliers, Flower said.
Weis said its distribution team has excelled at replenishing its stores. It has increased weekly shipments by 30 to 40 percent. The chain supplies its own stores. It has about a thousand distribution center associates and drivers who get shipments to the stores.
"Self-distribution has been a key to remaining in stock," Curtin said.
With restaurants only open for carryout or delivery during the shutdown, Redner's was able to procure some ground beef from a food service provider to offer to its store customers, White said. It was a nice opportunity that was born out of the breakdown in the supply chain.
Barry Kline, an owner of Kline's Grocery in Franklin County, partnered with a local diner and pizza shop to offer meals for customers. It helps support the local restaurants and offers grocery store clientele heat-and-eat meals.
Even some produce is being wrapped
Many stores are not offering self-service items that have to be fished out of a bin or removed from a tray.
Weis expects that salad bars will make a comeback, but it will take a while, Curtin said.
Some stores still allow customers to select individual produce — it can be washed, unlike a self-serve pastry — but others are packaging it.
Hollabaugh Bros. is wrapping its asparagus in plastic, Hollabaugh said. The store is not selling it loose as it has in the past.
The store plans to continue that practice until being given further guidance to put produce out that isn't wrapped.
Kline said he hopes grocery shopping will go back to normal eventually.
He hears customers say they are fed up with staying at home, and they are ready to get out and do things.
"I think they're ready to get back to normal," he said.
Teresa Boeckel is a reporter for the USA Today Network. Reach her at email@example.com.
Tips for shoppers
Stores offer the following tips for for their customers:
- Make a list of items you want based on the layout of the store.
- Wear a mask.
- Use wipes at the entrance to clean carts.
- Clean your hands with hand sanitizer available at stations in the store.
- If opting for pickup or delivery, reserve a time before building your cart. Keep checking for open slots online.