How to Be a Post-Pandemic Grocer

How to Be a Post-Pandemic Grocer

Gina Acosta, Progressive Grocer

The high-tech touchless grocery store that Amazon opened in Seattle this past February was viewed by some in the grocery industry as an expensive gimmick, a multimillion-dollar publicity stunt. The future of grocery retail? No way. It’s never gonna work, many said.

Then a highly contagious respiratory disease called COVID-19 came along and blew up everyone’s idea of the future of retail. Now, food retailers are scrambling to add many of the contactless shopping features that Amazon was thinking about years ago, when it first developed the Go concept.

Key Takeaways

  • Convert self-service features to full service.
  • Now is the time to audit your ventilation system.
  • Robots are cleaner and cheaper.

Back then, Amazon had no way of knowing that in the year 2020, going to the grocery store would be viewed by many consumers as a life-or-death matter. But Amazon did know that eliminating pain points — things such as navigating crowds, standing close to other people in a long checkout line, having to pass dirty cash to a cashier or swipe a credit card through a grimy terminal — was always going to be a good idea.

Today, making a shopper endure those pain points seems like an outdated way to retail. COVID has made touch-free grocery, sanitation and automation the new way forward in the grocery channel as consumers demand a safer shopping experience. Now, Kroger is touchless, Publix is touchless, and Walmart is more touchless than Target, or is it the other way around? Everyone, from the corner gas station to the local Outback Steakhouse to the nail salon down the street, is going touchless. And as the pandemic wears on, it’s clear that touchless commerce and many other changes, especially those having to do with safety and sanitation, are here to stay in the food and grocery industries.

Designing for COVID

Since the onset of the pandemic, many grocery retailers have been doing a heroic job of implementing a rigorous regimen of safety practices throughout the store: outfitting employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) and frequently cleaning shopping carts, checkout counters and payment PIN pads. Other retailers have focused on ramping up e-commerce services such as curbside pickup, scan-and-go, and contactless payments.

But the next phase of post-pandemic food retail is going to require a lot more than spraying door handles and offering Apple Pay. It’s going to require a fundamental shift in the way that food retailers think about their stores.

“We’re thinking strategically with our clients about how to make improvements throughout the store so that you have smarter, more creative solutions than, say, one-way aisles,” says John Scheffel, VP and director of visual design for api(+), a Tampa, Fla.-based design and architecture firm specializing in the grocery sector that has designed stores for Ahold Delhaize, Schnucks, Southeastern Grocers, Lowes Foods and The Fresh Market, among others. Scheffel says that many current pandemic-related practices in food retail may be temporary, but they will be permanent in terms of coming back again and again.

“Some social distancing measures in-store are going to be temporary things that reappear,” he says, “so they could be reimplemented with additional waves of cases or another virus. Measures might ease in between and then need to be enforced again. But there will be some permanent changes in people's mentalities and philosophies as a result of COVID-19.”

At the Amazon Go Grocery store in Seattle, contactless shopping is on perfect display, with no touchpoints at all except for whatever products a consumer may grab to purchase and "just walk out" with.
At the Amazon Go Grocery store in Seattle, contactless shopping is on perfect display, with no touchpoints at all except for whatever products a consumer may grab to purchase and "just walk out" with.

That's why some grocery retailers are already preparing to make permanent changes to their store layouts in 2020 and beyond. Some of those changes include improving air circulation in-store (more on that later). Other changes include thinking about ways to eliminate as many touchpoints in the store as possible (no more self-serve bagels or bulk food bins). Some of Scheffel's grocer clients have been calling him to make “plan changes related to converting self-service features to full-service,” among other changes.

“For example, we have a client that has a soup station in their plan. Right now, they're not convinced that the self-service part of the soup station would go away. But salad bars, they’re definitely rethinking that,” Scheffel says. “I think buffets will be a thing of the past, and self-service is definitely going to diminish greatly. You know, one of our clients, they are known for their doughnuts, and it’s self-serve. So right now, [due to COVID-19,] they're not doing self-serve, they are having employees serve the doughnuts to customers. We’ve suggested they create a doughnut shop, and that’s great, because if you go to a doughnut shop, the doughnuts are never self-service.”

Scheffel is working with many clients making changes such as adding capacity to their curbside pickup operations inside and outside of the store, including more parking spaces for customers. Others are adding hand-washing stations spaced throughout the store, or considering having a host or hostess help seat customers in dining areas to meet social-distancing guidelines.

“Retailers should be reconfiguring their stores to support the consumer demand for hygienic, safe experiences,” affirms Mara Behrens, VP of design and marketing at Hayward, Calif.-based Chowbotics, the maker of Sally, a robot that makes customized salads.

“This requires innovative design solutions that not only reduce fear, but reinstill the levels of trust and enjoyment that shoppers experienced prior to the pandemic.” Behrens adds that her company is seeing strong interest from retailers seeking to reinvent their salad bars with robotics.

As consumers keep social distancing, retailers must find a way to optimize their shopping journey, given the conflicting forces between their desire for a safer shopping experience and retailers’ desire to increase engagement and uplift,  according to Arvin Jawa, VP of retail strategy at North Canton, Ohio-based technology company Diebold Nixdorf.

“To further minimize the number of device touches and screen contact, user interfaces can be augmented with predictive modeling capabilities, contactless payment, video coupled with machine learning for product recognition, or even executing part of the checkout process on the consumer’s smartphone,” Jawa says. “These are measures that retailers will need to consider in order to further gain trust with consumers that their shopping environments are both safe and efficient.”

Clean = Trust

consumers are traumatized about shopping in what they perceive as a germ-filled store,

When it comes to safety, the primary focus for many grocers in meeting the new normal has been to increase cleaning and disinfection of the entire store before opening the following morning (i.e., a nightly deep clean). However, consumers are traumatized about shopping in what they perceive as a germ-filled store, so a nightly deep clean isn’t going to be enough to earn shopper loyalty post-COVID.

“The way we think about the whole sanitation process, and enhanced sanitation process, is just cleaning,” says Bob Robinson Jr., VP of sales at Hamilton, Ohio-based Kaivac, a manufacturer of professional cleaning equipment designed for use in the restaurant, grocery and foodservice industries. “So if you are cleaning correctly in the beginning, there’s nothing really to enhance. There is no need to do a deep clean if you have the right cleaning procedures.”

The “right cleaning procedures” and products may vary from retailer to retailer, based on their specific situations, but one universal best practice is to establish clear standard operating procedures, including checklists, to ensure that all stores are cleaned consistently.

A lot of retailers historically have used third-party independent contractors to cut sanitation costs. Cleaning has now moved from a cost center to a profit center, however: Consumers aren’t going to shop your store unless they see aggressive and obvious evidence of enhanced sanitation, and employees will have to be trained on the correct protocols, including how to follow the instructions on EPA-approved cleaning product labels.

At Lowes Foods in North Carolina, grocery design firm api(+) created a bakery department kiosk called Bread Crumb. It is designed to be a free-floating service area that gives customers the feeling that they are in a self-service bakery. But the kiosk is full-service, with bagged bread on the outside of the kiosk. Employees will slice or help select breads for customers.
At Lowes Foods in North Carolina, grocery design firm api(+) created a bakery department kiosk called Bread Crumb. It is designed to be a free-floating service area that gives customers the feeling that they are in a self-service bakery.

“Now a lot of retailers are saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to take charge of our scope of work,’ because they realize their cleaning practices have got to be visible to the customer,” Kaivac’s Robinson notes. His company is helping retailers train employees to be enhanced sanitation experts in the COVID era. Robinson adds that employees need to be trained on how to properly clean conveyor belts, shopping cart handles and other common touchpoint areas. For example, spraying the rag, and then cleaning the shopping cart, is not proper procedure; you have to spray the surface, and then wipe it with a clean cloth. “We’re working on programs and protocols to help retailers,” Robinson asserts. “Identifying common touchpoints, identifying your highest loads, but then building systems that could be customized training videos, customized programs and workloading systems to teach about cleaning.”

Food retailers will also have to be more proactive and transparent about their cleaning practices when it comes to ventilation systems. In an exclusive interview with Progressive Grocer, mechanical engineer Luke Leung, who helped design the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, among other notable structures, says that retailers should be taking steps to mitigate virus transmission through ventilation systems.

“Retailers should increase their [HVAC] filters to MERV 13, increase outside air, and consider use of UV-C light in air-handling units or ductwork. In selected spaces, maybe they should have ceiling fans drawing air up and provide upper-room UV-C light to clean the recirculated air, if outside air is insufficient or an enhanced filter is not possible,” observes Leung, who is director of the MEP + Sustainable Engineering Studio for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a Chicago-based commercial architecture and design firm.

Leung adds that retailers should avoid prolonged instances of air blowing from one area to others with no filtering. For example, with summer now here, a fan or air-conditioning unit blowing air from one checkout stand onto others with no filter should be avoided. Meanwhile, Scheffel, of API(+), notes:

“Airplanes recirculate their air every two to three minutes and have been outfitted to deal with airborne pandemics like COVID-19. I think we’ll see stores adjusting their priorities when it comes to HVAC.”

Another solution for retailers looking to prevent in-store spread could be installing portable sinks so that employees and customers can easily wash their hands. Handwashing with soap is a proven method for reducing the spread of the virus, so it’s imperative to make it easily accessible, urges Martin Watts, founder and CEO of Ozark River Manufacturing Co., in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Amazon, MGM Grand, Sony Pictures, Toyota, Boeing and Cracker Barrel are considering this option as states reopen.

Rise of the Robots

Food retailers large and small are also relying on automation to solve several facets of the pandemic safety challenge. They’re expanding how they use robots to keep employees safer, increase social distancing and reduce the number of staff that have to physically come to work. For example, Walmart is using robots to scrub its floors.

Bryan Smith, senior marketing manager for the Americas at Minneapolis-based Tennant Co., says that robots free up staff time for cleaning and disinfection. “Robotic cleaning machines allow retailers to rapidly increase cleaning frequency without increasing labor costs,” Smith observes.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Brain Corp., which produces AI software that Tennant and others use to power their robotic floor scrubbers, has seen a significant uptick in usage.

During the first four months of the year, use of BrainOS-powered robotic floor scrubbers in U.S. retail locations rose 18% compared with the same period last year, including a 24% year-over-year increase in April, according to Brain Corp data. Of that 18% year-to-date increase, more than two-thirds (68%) occurred during the daytime, between 6 a.m. and 5:59 p.m.

“We expect this increase to continue as the value of automation and robotics comes sharply into focus,” says Phil Duffy, VP of innovation at San Diego-based Brain Corp.

Another important benefit to retailers is that the autonomous robots allow companies to set and meet compliance standards in regard to daily cleaning routines.

“Via cloud-based operational metrics, they can accurately measure things like cleaning coverage and time spent cleaning per day,” notes Duffy. “Those metrics provided by the robots enable store managers to track the work that has been done, compare that data against their compliance targets, and with that, optimize cleaning quality and consistency.”

Now is the time for food retailers to start putting the foundations in place to make their stores safer to shop. 

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