Retailers adjust store hours, focus on employees amid COVID-19 outbreak

David Salazar
Managing Editor
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The impact of COVID-19 is being felt globally, and retail is no exception. As the number of cases in the United States continues to increase, the industry is taking steps to keep stores safe for consumers and associates while still serving as a resource. 

All three of the nation’s leading drug chains — CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid and Walgreens have undertaken efforts to improve access to prescription delivery, waiving fees. Walgreens also has begun to offer free delivery for online orders with no minimum order price required. And on Wednesday, Walgreens joined the ranks of retailers that are limiting their store hours. 

Starting Thursday, Walgreens said that most of its locations, including 24-hour stores, will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during weekdays until further notice, with plans to offer the same hours on weekends with pharmacy hours staying the same on weekends in large part. The company noted that locations with 24-hour drive-through pharmacies will continue to offer 24-hour drive-through services for prescriptions and select products. 

“By operating with reduced hours, our stores will be able to spend the necessary time, while closed, cleaning, sanitizing and stocking shelves each day. We’re also adjusting our hours to help team members and customers feel comfortable and safe to shop our store during this time,” said Walgreens president, Richard Ashworth. “We’re continuing to work around the clock to do everything we can to ensure our customers have access to the care, products and services they need.”

Walgreens is following suit with Walmart, which changed the hours of its 24-hour stores to allow for more cleaning and sanitation; Kroger; and Target, which implemented closing times of 9 p.m. for stores that typically are open past that time. 

Not all retailers are limiting their hours. In Seattle, local chain Bartell Drugs added a 24-hour store, including pharmacy, in the heaviest-impacted areas of Kirkland and Bellevue. It joins another 24-hour location in Queen Anne. “The intention behind this is to offer our customers a chance to shop for necessities during off hours and to maintain desired social distance. This will also allow customers access to pharmacists and prescriptions during this time,” the company said. At the same time, though, demand for clinicians in the Kaiser Permanent health system has required those staffing its CareClinics to be present elsewhere, leading the chain to close all of its in-store Kaiser Permanente Care Clinics starting March 18. 

As retailers look to navigate COVID-19, many also are adding ways for vulnerable customers to shop during less busy times. Dollar General, Stop and Shop and The Giant Co. all announced plans to begin setting aside early hours of the day for older and at-risk customers. Also joining those ranks is Kroger, Target — which set aside the first hour of shopping on Wednesdays — and all of Albertsons’ banner stores, which are reserving 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays for vulnerable shoppers. 

“We are sensitive to the fact that everyone wants to make sure they have the items they need, and we also know that everyone wants their neighbors to stay safe and healthy, too,” said Vivek Sankaran, Albertsons president and CEO. “We are asking our customers to respect these special hours for those who are most at risk in our communities. We thank our customers in advance for their compassion and understanding toward their neighbors and friends, and in helping us maintain this temporary operations guideline.”

Additionally, with retailers still seeking to be a resource for consumers, they also are addressing staffing challenges, with several instituting pay guarantees for associates who test positive for COVID-19 or who have to quarantine themselves following exposure. Some retailers even are hiring, among them e-commerce giant Amazon and Kroger, whose CEO Rodney McMullen told CNBC Tuesday that the chain had hired more than 2,000 people in the past week, and was looking to fill more than 10,000 openings across its retail, warehouse and plant footprint. 

“We have relationships with several different other industries where they’re directing their people to us,” McMullen told the network’s show “Closing Bell.” “We have a ton of openings.” 

As DSNhas highlighted, ensuring that employees feel valued and taken care of will be a central part of the industry’s overall response — something that Rite Aid CEO Heyward Donigan told DSN in an exclusive interview Monday is one of the chain’s top priorities (Rite Aid has issued its associates “care kits” and created a “Pandemic Pay” policy).  “The challenge really does get back to keeping our associates healthy and keeping them able to keep up with this volume,” Donigan said.