Food and drug retailers lead the way back

David Orgel
Principal, David Orgel Consulting

Most people know the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, who had a big fall off a wall. No one could figure out how to put Humpty back together again.

Everyone’s now struggling to put the pieces back together as the U.S. economy opens up from the pandemic. Those pieces won’t come together in exactly the same way as before, which is fine, as long as we avoid a Humpty Dumpty outcome. Food and drug retailers are doing their part, and then some, to lead the way back.

Retailers were instrumental in getting the country through this coronavirus crisis. They stayed open when almost everything else shut down. Now they are helping to point the way back for society, with strategies that include expanded virus testing, gradual phase-ins to normal operations, support for shuttered local businesses, and moves to share the best practices they’ve learned.

In fact, these retailers have picked up a new skill set during the pandemic in being ahead of the game at every stage of a protracted crisis. This is a capability they should hold onto in the future because it’s impossible to know what’s ahead.

Here are some of the most notable ways food and drug retailers have been out front in leading the way back.

Phasing in Regular Operations
Many retailers began gradually expanding hours and reopening some departments shuttered during the crisis, while maintaining smart safety measures. In one example, Walgreens returned to regular operating hours for most stores in early May, but held back in some cases in the busiest locations.

Expanding Tests
Drug store chains including CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens expanded free coronavirus testing services, while Health Mart pharmacies offered free COVID-19 test collection in certain rural areas. There was no mistaking the point that retailers aimed to make a difference in helping society open up. “We all want life to return to normal, and one way to help is more COVID-19 testing, even in rural areas,” said Nancy Lyons, chief pharmacist for Health Mart.

Supporting Local
Food and drug retail executives have understood the importance of boosting local businesses shuttered by the pandemic. Supermarkets began selling local restaurant meals in their stores to provide a lifeline to the hard hit foodservice sector. Retailers found other ways to shore up local businesses as well. The Giant Company, part of Ahold Delhaize, took an innovative approach by awarding some 110 emergency grants totaling $500,000 to small businesses in Pennsylvania’s food supply chain.

Boosting Capabilities
Retailers experienced a surge in online shopping during the pandemic, and many weren’t fully prepared for the extra stress on capabilities. Some retailers are already moving to expand services and capacity. Walmart, for example, sped up a rollout of Express Delivery, a service that delivers products to homes in less than two hours. “COVID-19 has prompted us to launch Express Delivery even faster so that we’re here for our customers today and in the future,” said Janey Whiteside, chief customer officer.

Sharing What They’ve Learned
The highly competitive retail business doesn’t usually share its secrets. But in the midst of a pandemic, retailers shared information for the greater good. A standout example was Kroger, which unveiled "A Blueprint for Businesses," a strikingly comprehensive document that shares best practices so that other businesses can reopen and operate safely.

Kudos to food and drug retailers for staying one step ahead throughout this crisis, and helping to support everyone else. They will need to remain agile in the face of all the uncertainties that lie ahead.

About the Author

David Orgel

David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker. He is currently the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries.

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