Learning the Lessons of COVID-19
With initial doses of COVID-19 vaccines beginning to be distributed in the United States, many in the grocery industry are trying to determine what life looks like post-pandemic and, more importantly, how we can learn from the pandemic to better anticipate and respond to the next major crisis.
More than a decade ago, I participated in a tabletop exercise with the Department of Homeland Security. When we came to the topic of a pandemic, we were asked whether we thought we could keep people fed in their homes. At the time, I was skeptical because there wasn’t as much delivery back then. What the past nine months have shown us, however, is that we can feed people and keep them safe at the same time. Mask wearing, social distancing and other protocols have allowed employees to continue coming to work — to drive the trucks, stock the stores and supply the groceries.
We were able to avoid food shortages by diverting a lot of the meat and produce that normally go to restaurants and cruise ships to supermarket shelves. While there were some problematic areas, namely having to dispose of containers of certain perishable goods like milk, we avoided the mass food shortages often seen in other parts of the world following major social upheavals and natural disasters.
What I wouldn’t have predicted is the huge demand for paper products like toilet paper, paper towels and other household goods. Like many people in this industry, I initially assumed that shoppers would flood stores looking for canned goods and other staples.
Paper goods are nonexpandable, meaning that unlike bags of chips, you can buy more, but you won’t be able to consume more. Naturally, manufacturers couldn’t have known that shoppers would begin hoarding paper goods — and once that happened, how could manufacturers know the extent of the increased demand? Would it be 5,000% greater than normal, or more? Factories can only ramp up production so much before they’re at maximum capacity.
When we first saw this starting to become an issue in our stores, we advised our owners to expand their offerings and “open up.” Much like customers at the time, there was less loyalty to a brand and more focus on whatever people could get their hands on. Owners adapted their shelves as much as possible to best service their customers during this time.
The Promise of Normality
Ultimately, though, products returned to stores, and now we’re seeing shoppers beginning to exert more brand loyalty. Shoppers are now starting to become pickier, passing on generic or off-brand products and waiting for their favorite premium products to return to shelves. That’s a good sign that shopping habits are returning to something resembling normality.
Another shift we’ve seen recently is within store displays such as salad bars. At the onset of COVID-19, there was obviously a huge shift in self-serve options, where owners would package up the items in easier to-go formats for customers. Now, we’re starting to see this open up a bit, and self-serve is coming back to some extent. While owners and shoppers are still being as careful as possible, these little shifts back to “normal” show promise.
As we look back on this experience, we in the grocery industry can take great pride in having adapted so quickly and effectively. For nearly one full year, we’ve essentially operated on overdrive to meet heightened demand. We can’t know when the next crisis will hit or what it will be, but we should feel confident in our ability to adapt once the next disruption occurs.
This pandemic has brought the importance of the grocery industry to the forefront of public consciousness. Like firefighters and paramedics, grocery clerks, truck drivers and warehouse workers are part of the essential fabric of the nation, keeping hundreds of millions of people fed with little thought to their own safety and well-being.
I’m proud to work alongside these heroic men and women who have sacrificed so much, and I can rest easier at night knowing that our families and communities are in their capable hands.