Pandemic Has Elevated Role Of Supermarkets Like Stop & Shop; Sales Expected To Remain Elevated Through 2020
The height of the boom is over for America’s biggest grocers – at least for now.
Food and beverage sales at US retail stores grew 11.5 percent in August compared with last year, according to Nielsen. That compares with 31.2 percent year-over-year growth in March. Sales online have also moderated. Delivery and curbside pickup sales totaled $5.7 billion in August, down from $6.6 billion in May and $7.2 billion in June, consulting firm Brick Meets Click said in a recent report.
When the pandemic began in the spring, consumers hoarded groceries and household staples such as toilet paper, sanitizer, and packaged goods, driving up sales at top chains. Seven months out, consumers’ nerves have calmed, leading them to shop as they may have done before the coronavirus pandemic locked us in. That said, many people are still cooking and eating many more meals at home than they used to – still afraid to return to restaurants. But the end of stimulus checks and an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits has slowed spending overall.
“People aren’t hoarding,” Katie Thomas, head of the Global Consumer Institute at Kearney, a strategy and management consulting firm, told CNN. “They’re not stocking up on products like they were.”
Slowdown or not, most analysts forecast grocery sales will remain elevated through 2020’s end — though perhaps not to the unprecedented degree seen early in the pandemic. The wildcard of course, is a second shutdown.
Working in partnership when the pandemic began to take hold, UFCW International and UFCW local unions together with Stop & Shop offered union members a temporary premium. When that pay raise expired in July, the UFCW local unions and members asked Stop & Shop to do what is right for grocery workers and UFCW members. In late September, an agreement was reached. Under the terms of an agreement reached by the Quincy-based grocery store chain and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, 56,000 unionized workers will receive retroactive premium pay – in the form of lump sum payments equal to 10 percent of all hours worked between July 5 and Aug. 22 .
RCBJ talks with Stop & Shop, which operates more than 400 supermarkets in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, including three Rockland locations: New City, Orangeburg and Nanuet.
Maura O’Brien, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, talks about the pandemic and the road forward.
Q. How did the pandemic impact staff levels? Were there furloughs? Layoffs? Positions added? Where do things stand now?
A. In the early month of the COVID-19 pandemic Stop & Shop stores saw an unprecedented surge in demand. As customer demand increased, our stores began hiring part-time associates across all of our stores. Stop & Shop actively continues to hire for various positions and shifts in our stores.
Q. How did it impact decisions on stocking food and supplies (we all recall the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer)? Has all that leveled out? Are there still things in short supply?
A. Stop & Shop has worked diligently with suppliers to keep high-demand products such as sanitizers and cleaning products in stock. Some health and beauty care products as well as cleaning products – including paper goods, Purell hand sanitizer and Lysol disinfecting wipes – remain limited in supply on a national level. Stop & Shop has placed a purchase limit on select high-demand items in-store and online.
Q. Does the supermarket have a plan in place in case we have a second surge?
A. Our teams continue to put robust plans in place to help ensure that our stores remain well-stocked. We have also ramped up our Pickup & Home Delivery services so we can continue to serve our customers by offering them both in-store and online shopping experiences.
Q. What were consumers buying more of?
A. Stop & Shop has seen increased sales on items like paper products, hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes, Lysol sprays, bleach, antibacterial soap, paper products and other cleaning products.
Q. How did the role of supermarkets change, as a result of the pandemic?
A. Our stores quickly became even more vital in our communities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We worked quickly to ensure our stores were safe and sanitized around the clock. We continue to prioritize the health and safety of our customers and associates and are working around the clock to keep our stores sanitized and safe for everyone.
Q. There has been some concern about supermarkets raising prices — did Stop & Shop?
A. We can confirm that we have not raised prices. We continue to run weekly promotions to ensure that our customers can shop for sale items. Customers can consult our circular on a weekly basis by visiting stopandshop.com or downloading the Stop & Shop mobile app.
Q. What has customer traffic been like?
A. Our stores have returned to pre-COVID levels of traffic and demand. Stop & Shop Pickup & Home Delivery have also returned to normal levels of service.
Q. What is Stop and Shop doing to keep consumers safe?
A. The health and safety of our customers and associates is a top priority for Stop & Shop and all of our store teams. We have put robust cleaning and sanitizing procedures in place in all high-touch areas of our stores, along with plexiglass dividers and six-foot demarcations to promote social distancing. We offer disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer at our entrances and exits, along with trash receptacles in our parking lots to promote the proper disposal of masks, gloves and other protective equipment. We have also instituted one-way aisles and capacity limits, along with special shopping hours for customers 60+ and those considered to be at high-risk of COVID-19 by the CDC. We continue to follow the guidance of the CDC and local health authorities to help ensure that we’re taking all possible precautions to keep everyone safe while in our stores.
Q. In general, the pandemic has been a boom for supermarkets. Presumably people are home and cooking much more frequently. Does your observation support that — and in what ways are you able to tap into that opportunity?
A. Stop & Shop is committed to helping its customers access great food at a great value. Knowing many families are cooking at home, we recently introduced a campaign that focuses on an affordable DIY family favorite – pizza.
Q. What role as an “Educator” does a supermarket have in the COVID era?
A. Through our many health and safety precautions, and commitment to our communities, Stop & Shop is leading by example, expressing the importance of working to protect and respect one another through this challenging time.