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Independent Grocers Rise to the Pandemic Challenge

Deliveries and other services could help shape their post-pandemic world
Independent grocers are innovating during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best in some smaller, independent food retailers, which have moved quickly to innovate and respond to social distancing requirements and changed shopping habits.

One example comes from Kansas. Family-owned Smith’s Market, in Hutchinson, started to offer “delivery as soon as the stay-in-place order hit,” according to The Hutchinson News. “Chris Barnes, the owner, said he will keep doing delivery after COVID-19 passes.”

Those smaller, independent and often rural food retailers face big challenges on the best of days, but they do enjoy potential advantages during the pandemic. They have ability to move quickly and start new programs such as delivery without getting approval from multiple layers of corporate bureaucracy. Not only that, but those independent food retailers located in smaller towns also are benefiting from local consumers’ general unwillingness to travel during the outbreak to bigger cities to shop.

“I also think that folks are increasingly recognizing the importance of having some kind of food access in their community,” said David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University. “I would not be surprised once this situation has improved that there is an increased push among some rural communities to establish local access to groceries and healthy food.”

Those small, independent stores are also playing a leading role in helping to ease the pains of the pandemic and the job laws resulting from it. “Some grocery stores are spearheading food giveaways,” Procter said. “There are these things called ‘Blessing Boxes’ where people provide food — not only the grocery store — and residents can provide extra food or products that people need, and others can come and pick those up for free.”

Looking further into the future of food retailing, it seems likely that artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will help those smaller, independent operators better serve their local customers, whether in rural areas or bigger cities. “Autonomous vehicles like the one from Silicon Valley startup Nuro that take up less space than cars could deliver goods to people safely and without human contact,” reads a recent CNBC report that featured an interview with Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s chief technology officer.

“I think about my grandmother, a 90-year-old woman living in a very sparsely populated part of Central Virginia,” Scott told the news outlet. “She’s lucky enough to be in just really good health. She lives independently in the same house my mom was raised in, and the day is coming when she’s not going to be able to drive to pick up her prescription.” According to Scott, those “smarter delivery vehicles could lengthen the amount of time she could live independently.”

Pandemics have a way of changing so much, and either starting trends or fueling existing ones. It seems likely that the post-pandemic world of independent food retail will include more than a few innovations.

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