Leading the way: Retail takes on critical role in COVID-19 battle

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Leading the way: Retail takes on critical role in COVID-19 battle

By Mark Hamstra - 04/23/2020

These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Unfortunately, Thomas Paine’s comment nearly 250 years ago holds true today. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused economic havoc and uncertainty unseen in this country in at least the last 90 years and perhaps ever. 

Yet, drug and food retailers have remained at the front lines of the pandemic, second only to healthcare providers and first responders, in helping provide critical, life-sustaining services to the nation and its consumers during this crisis.

As the virus rapidly spreads across the country and around the world, retailers have been proudly running at a full sprint to keep up with the rapidly-changing environment of concerned customers and employees, a strained supply chain, and the effects of a tightening government lockdown.

They are playing a significant role, helping the nation navigate the crisis by providing needed food and medicine, while, at the same time, making significant adjustments to their operations to protect the health of their workers and their shoppers. Several retailers also have stepped up to fill a needed role by providing sites for patient testing, and some are hiring thousands of additional personnel amid mass layoffs in other industries.

At the store level, and putting their own worries aside, clerks are filling shelves at a record pace; store management is pitching in to do much of the heavy lifting; and pharmacists have become an even greater source of much-needed information for a public that is not only frightened but confused. 

The first challenge retailers have been forced to navigate has been the waves of panic buying, driving people into stores to stock up on shelf-stable goods, immune system boosters and other supplies. “I think the biggest thing retailers are facing is increased demand,” said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations at FMI - The Food Industry Association. “It’s really unprecedented.”

Many mass retailers have been reporting double, triple and quadruple their normal daily sales volumes. “That type of demand is going to put a strain on any supply chain,” Baker said, noting that retailers and their suppliers have been handling the spikes in demand with a high level of proficiency. “The machines are running 24/7. There are selectors in the warehouses, and the trucks are getting out to the stores.”

Suppliers and retailers have been working together to come up with solutions to help keep the flow of products moving, such as suspending the shipments of slow-moving SKUs to focus only on the most popular sizes and varieties of certain items, as well as on items that can be manufactured most efficiently.

Retailers also have had to begin placing limits on some items and caution consumers against hoarding in order to ensure that products are available for all their customers.

“We are working tirelessly to have the items you need on our shelves,” said Todd Jones, CEO of Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets, in a letter to customers. “We have applied purchase limits on some key items to allow more customers to get what they need.”

In a statement on its website, Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle asked customers to “be mindful” of how much of each item of products they purchase. “We are working very closely with our supplier partners to keep our shelves stocked with the items you need most, including fresh foods, cleaning supplies, and medications,” the company said.

Workers in Demand
It is quite clear how seriously the industry is taking this pandemic. Food and drug retailers are adding tens of thousands of workers to their stores and warehouses, boosting pay and enacting safeguards to protect their health as they come face-to-face with each other and with customers.

“It’s very important that we understand that people are what keep this industry open,” Baker said. “Maintaining their health, and also having contingency plans in place for labor, will be extremely important as this thing progresses.”

Several retailers have said they are increasing workers’ salaries as a form of “hazard pay.” Camp Hill, Pa.-based Rite Aid, for example, implemented a “Pandemic Pay” policy with $2-per-hour wage increases for hourly employees and bonuses for pharmacists and managers in both its stores and warehouses. Walgreens is offering a bonus to both full-time and hourly store and distribution center workers at the end of this month. 

Rite Aid CEO Heyward Donigan told Drug Store News that one of the company’s main priorities is “keeping our associates healthy, because if they’re not healthy, they can’t be in the stores, or at the mail-order pharmacy, or at the specialty pharmacy, or at the PBM to serve our customers. 

The challenge really does get back to keeping our associates healthy and helping them be able to keep up with this volume and keep products in stock.”

Cincinnati-based Kroger is among several retailers that have ramped up hiring to meet increased demand during the crisis. The company said it had positions open throughout its stores and warehouse network, and that qualified candidates could be placed within a matter of days.

Retailers also are redistributing their labor, shifting workers from positions that no longer are needed, such as stocking salad bars, to other responsibilities, Baker said.

Some retailers have implemented extraordinary safety precautions to protect their employees, including installing plexiglass partitions throughout their store networks to help protect their pharmacists and cashiers.

“Our associates are on the front lines, ensuring Americans have access to the food, services and products they need during this unprecedented pandemic,” Kroger said in a statement announcing the rollout of the new partitions. “We are committed to protecting the health and safety of our associates.”

Other retailers also have installed plexiglass partitions in their pharmacies and checkout lanes to protect workers from the spread of the virus, which is believed to be transmitted primarily through airborne water droplets from the coughs and sneezes of infected individuals. Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart said it first rolled out the protective barriers in its pharmacies and was extending them to its checkout lanes to protect cashiers, as well.

At Kroger, employees are permitted to wear protective masks and gloves, and the company said it is working to ensure that retail workers are near the front of the line for these items once government officials secure enough masks for the healthcare industry.

A shortage of such equipment, as well as coronavirus testing kits, already has slowed the rollout of planned testing centers at CVS Pharmacy locations, CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo said in a March 24 interview on CNBC. He said the retailer, which is seeking to add 50,000 workers to handle increased consumer demand for products, also is working with other such retailers as Target, Walgreens and Walmart to make testing kits more readily available.

Retailers also are stepping up their sanitation procedures to keep their stores clean to protect both workers and customers, and enhancing their sick leave policies to make sure employees don’t come to work if they are feeling ill or have any of the symptoms of COVID-19.

Kroger, for example, enacted an emergency leave policy, allowing paid time off for any employee diagnosed with the disease or placed under quarantine by a public health official or a medical provider because of COVID-19. Eligible workers can receive their standard pay for up to 14 days.

In order to better protect customers, retailers are increasing their sanitization of shopping carts and other high-use areas of their stores, such as credit card terminals and checkout belts. Many have begun enforcing social distancing in the checkout lanes, using signage and floor decals, as well as verbal direction from employees.

Many retailers have reduced their operating hours to allow more time for shelf stocking and deep cleaning overnight.

 “We remain committed to serving communities across the country during this time as federal and state government officials continue to ask essential businesses like Walgreens to remain open,” said Rina Shah, group vice president of specialty and retail pharmacy at Deerfield Park, Ill.-based Walgreens. “To continue to meet the needs of our customers and patients while maintaining safety for the community, we have adjusted many aspects of our operations. To ensure product supply, we continue to work closely with partners to address the current supply chain dynamics. 

“We’re also instituting guidance and limits around certain high-demand medicines. Additionally, many boards of pharmacy have worked with state governments to reduce regulatory and legal burdens around the pharmacy practice that have allowed our pharmacy team to continue to serve all of our patients,” Shah said. “We’ve also introduced a number of initiatives to ensure patients and customers can get access to essential products and medicines. From providing expanded drive-through services to specialized care for seniors, we’re delivering care when and how our customers need it.” 

Brian Cornell, CEO of Minneapolis-based Target, said in a March 25 interview with CNBC that he expected the company to incur additional expenses of $300 million in the first quarter from reduced hours, employee bonuses and increased sanitation.

Among the new perks Target is offering employees is the ability to shop the stores before they open three days a week, he said.

Dedicated Senior Hours
Perhaps one of the most widespread initiatives retailers have adopted is the creation of dedicated shopping hours for older consumers, who are among the most at risk of serious illness from the disease. Retailers large and small have made this service available in their communities around the country.

Publix, for example, said it was opening its stores and pharmacies on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. for customers age 65 years old and older. “We appreciate everyone’s support as we work together to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” the retailer said in a statement.

Retailers also have been urging customers not to shop if they are sick, and promoting their delivery and pickup services more prominently, including through the free delivery of prescriptions. Both retailers and third-party delivery firms, such as Instacart and Shipt, have bolstered their staff with additional personnel to handle the influx of curbside pickup and delivery orders. Retailers also have warned customers that deliveries might be delayed and some products might be out of stock.

Rite Aid, in addition to detailing its wide-ranging efforts to protect employees and customers from infection, has been promoting its online and mobile app ordering capabilities, including free prescription delivery for certain qualified medications.

“We are working around the clock to procure products like sanitizer, cleansers, rubbing alcohol and other items our customers need,” Rite Aid’s Donigan said in a letter to customers. “We’ve also significantly increased our staffing levels to fill online orders quicker.”

The company said it established purchase limits of certain items both in store and online to ensure they are available for all customers. “We appreciate your patience and understanding as we continue to work on replenishing merchandise,” Donigan said.

Clear Communication
Another important element of retailers’ relationship with both customers and employees is transparent communication. Employees need to understand that there are risks involved with coming to work, and both customers and workers should be aware of the steps companies are taking to protect them.

“Transparency is the most important thing right now, and letting everybody know that they’re in good hands,” said FMI’s Baker. “We need to make sure consumers know that grocery stores are not closing down, just like we need to make sure the employees feel comfortable that when they go into the stores, they’re being protected.”

Scott Clarke, vice president and consumer products industry lead at consulting firm Publicis Sapient, said that communication is key for retailers in times of disaster.

In addition to helping calm the panic buying through careful messaging and limitations on purchases, retailers also can help guide shoppers through purchases. Consumers might be seeking foods or supplements that boost their immune systems, for example, Clarke said.

“People are going out and just buying everything that they see without realizing that certain products may be providing the same purpose, and you don’t need product X if you’re buying product Y,” he said. “So, it’s about helping people make smarter choices about what they do need to stay healthy, and to protect themselves and protect others from the pandemic.”

Communicating to customers around product availability also is important, he said, suggesting that retailers post store inventory updates online so that consumers can see what’s out of stock before they make a trip to the store in the first place.

“If products are out of stock in the store, give [customers] an alternative to buy them online so they don’t have to leave the house, which is increasingly important,” Clarke said. 

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