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Grocery Industry: Pandemic Changes How America Shops

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Remember meandering through grocery aisles to discover new meal ideas, hunt for your favorite snacks or find an interesting spice?

Today’s means of obtaining groceries has become far different compared with the experience of mere months ago.

In light of the pandemic, many consumers have turned to grocery delivery. Among grocers selling online, sales shot up 210.1% between March 12 and 15, 2020 compared with March 12 to 15, 2019, according to Rakuten Intelligence.

Modifications at Save A Lot in Fulton has helped increase customer comfort levels. Installation of Plexiglas shields at each register and wearing masks has helped, according to Tricia Woodward, store manager.

“About 99.9% of people coming in are wearing masks,” she said.

Store personnel also wipe down carts, registers shelves, tags and other surfaces. The extra work requires the store to close an hour earlier each evening; however, sales are still strong.

Price Chopper, as with many other grocery stores, has offered Instacart for grocery delivery for years. Mona Golub, vice president of public relations and consumer services, said that Instacart has increased dramatically since the pandemic started.

Instacart’s business has increased more than 400% companywide.

Price Chopper also provides curbside service. Golub said that employees at the store shop for the customer’s orders and customers call from the curb once they’ve arrived. In general, grocery store sales have shot up.

“At this point with schools closed and restaurants open for take-out only, people are enjoying more meals at home than they usually do and recognizing the economics of buying food at the supermarket to buy at home,” Golub said. “It reminds us as to how economical it is to do that.”

Golub thinks that grocery delivery and curbside pick-up may continue as popular options, “but not as much as at the peak of the pandemic.”

Instacart delivery has become more popular at ALDI. The chain added Instacart in September, 2018 and it’s currently available at nearly all ALDI stores.

“Customer response to grocery delivery has been overwhelmingly positive, and through this online offering, we have been able to reach new customers who weren’t previously shopping at ALDI, while offering added convenience to our existing customers,” said Aaron Sumida, ALDI Tully division vice president.

ALDI recently began expanding its curbside pick-up service to about 600 stores nationwide, including the stores in Camillus, Cicero, Clay and East Syracuse.

Changes have also come to Tops Friendly Markets.

“This has been an unprecedented time for everyone and especially for the grocery industry,” said Kathy Sautter, Tops’ public and media relations manager. “As you can imagine, the demand for grocery services like pickup and delivery have escalated causing longer wait times than usual over the course of this pandemic but throughout, we have greatly improved upon these concerns by working closely with our partner Instacart to closely monitor the situation and increase the number of options for our customers.”

Strategies like expanding the hours in which Instacart shoppers can look for customers’ goods has helped meet customers’ expectations.

Tops also started a pilot program in which it supplements the Instacart workforce with their own store associates.

At Wegmans, online shopping “has definitely been increasing,” said Marcie Rivera, media relations specialist at Wegmans. The store has offered Instacart for a few years.

“We’ve had people who have had problems placing orders because the demand is so high,” Rivera said. “We’re letting our shoppers know that even though demands are high, we’re encouraging them to keep checking.”

She added requests for curbside service have also increased and likely will continue after the pandemic subsides.

Curbside Service Helps a Camillus Shop

Stores offering curbside service and delivery have seen increases in these services.

Witty Wicks Candles and Gift Shop in Camillus sells food items, which enabled the store to become approved as an essential retail business.

Owner Aubry Panek said that online sales have increased. Promoting sales through Facebook has proven helpful.

“We have live shopping events,” Panek said. “We call it ‘Wacky Wednesday.’ We feature certain items or sections of the store. Saturdays, we have ‘Cocktails with Cathy’ and she introduces the new candle for the week. We also have virtual shopping, an hour where we shop the entire store and they can direct message us.”

She said that the store has always maintained a strong social media presence and that’s been helpful to boosting its online sales. Zany personalities don’t hurt, either.

“Our customers are used to us doing live unboxings,” Panek said. “Cathy and I do silly online stuff all the time. It was a natural progression for us. We will continue to do that. I don’t know that it will be necessary to do live shopping events, though.

“What’s been nice is customers are home and they still want to give gifts to people and have something new in their house. They want some comfort items. It’s been fun to sit at home and feel like they’re in the store shopping.”