By the end of February, Americans were starting to see a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, as vaccine development was ramping up and rolling out. Unfortunately, the country also met a grim milestone of 500,000 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19, and experts cautioned that safety measures may need to remain in place for longer than anticipated, particularly as new, aggressive variants of the disease have been detected.
For grocers and other retailers, the enhanced store sanitation measures that they’ve adopted during the pandemic will also likely remain in place, at least for the foreseeable future and possibly far beyond. While it’s unknown how long the American psyche will be affected by what the country has been through in the past year, business leaders are hedging their bets that customers will continue to demand visibly clean, safe stores.
“While vaccines are a critical breakthrough for fighting the pandemic, it will take months for most people to be vaccinated, and even longer before we return to ‘normal,’” predicts Chris Wright, VP of sales at Brain Corp., a San Diego-based firm that makes software for robotic floor scrubbers. “Even then, the changes to retail operations from COVID-19 are here to stay. We might see minor changes, such as the removal of plastic barriers at checkout counters or less frequent sanitations between shoppers, but the pandemic has altered peoples’ perceptions and expectations of cleanliness. Cleaning is no longer just a job – it’s now a brand value.”
Some retailers agree that providing clean, safe stores is not only a responsibility, it’s also a competitive advantage.
Dennis A. Host, VP of marketing at Coborn’s, tells Progressive Grocer that his customers have expressed appreciation for what the company’s stores have been doing to stay safe since last spring, and he believes that some of them choose Coborn’s because of its commitment to cleanliness. “We have always taken great pride in offering a safe and clean environment for our guests – that’s part of the experience we deliver,” he says. “The pandemic has heightened our awareness of those protocols as we’ve put more rigorous processes in place.”
The St. Cloud, Minn.-based regional chain of 59 stores has taken an impressive number of steps to protect customers and employees during the pandemic. In addition to requiring employees to wear masks and strongly recommending its customers do so, the grocer has introduced electrostatic cleaning and sanitizing of its shopping carts throughout the day, and has stepped up cleaning practices of frequently touched areas and throughout its stores.
According to Host, his company views the safety protocols it has adopted as likely being “longer term.”
In fact, in an effort to further step up its commitment to safety, Coborn’s recently became “Ecolab Science Certified” by St. Paul, Minn.-based Ecolab, joining the ranks of other regional operators, including Ingles Markets, Brookshire’s Food & Pharmacy, Cub Foods, and Bristol Farms and Lazy Acres, as well as larger chains. The certification recognizes a retailer’s commitment to rigorous cleaning protocols, training and audits, and now includes guidelines specifically related to COVID-19.
According to some of Ecolab’s proprietary research, conducted in January, even after a vaccine is distributed, 95% of consumers surveyed said that they want to see as much or more cleaning and sanitation practices at the places they eat, stay and shop. Eighty percent said that they wanted businesses to follow “strict cleaning protocols.”
Adam Johnson, VP and general manager of Ecolab’s general global food retail business, notes, “In the current environment, customers are looking for visual reassurance that the stores they’re shopping in are committed to advancing cleaner, safer practices and addressing current and future pandemic concerns.”
Ecolab’s Science Certified program provides food retailers, restaurants and hotels the “science-based products, programs and protocols needed to help prevent the spread of germs – and give consumers confidence that businesses are taking steps to deliver a higher level of cleanliness,” he says. These products include hospital disinfectants and food-contact sanitizers proven to kill the COVID-19 virus.
A key part of the program is the audits that Ecolab provides, continues Johnson. “The audit provides retailers feedback that helps them continue to improve their operations based on key metrics, and ensure public-health and food safety best practices are followed,” he notes, adding that as well as addressing risks related to hand hygiene, social distancing, illness policies and disinfection practices, Ecolab’s audits focus on food safety challenges that the industry continues to face pre- and post-pandemic.
Along with programs like Ecolab’s, retailers now have a host of new tools at their disposal to enhance their sanitation efforts. Examples include robots that deliver ultraviolet-C (UVC) radiation to eradicate viruses and other high-risk pathogens, blue light, advanced cleaning machines, and even a checkout belt sanitation system.
Neu-Tech Energy Solutions, an LED lighting supplier based in Terrace Park, Ohio, is providing blue-light fixtures and UVC lighting to a Sentry Foods store in Delafield, Wis., to make various areas of the store safer. The UVC lighting, which has been linked to inactivating the virus that causes COVID-19, hangs over Sentry’s shopping cart area, while a portable UVC light is placed near the checkout lanes. The lights have their own commercial-grade timers and are only operated at night when the store is closed, since UVC light at direct exposure can harm humans’ skin and eyes, notes Gary Neumann, a partner at Neu-Tech. Additionally, the fixtures have motion sensors on them so that if someone walks into the area where they’re being used, they turn off immediately.
Neu-Tech also provides units that can be mounted on the wall or ceiling and can sanitize areas and surfaces, as well as units that can be put into the HVAC system, out of view.
Sentry is using the blue lights in its meat department. While this technology is still being tested on the COVID-19 virus to prove efficacy, it has already been shown to kill or deactivate a wide range of bacteria, including MRSA, staph, strep, C. diff, listeria, salmonella and more, when used at a specific wavelength, according to Neumann. “To be honest, every meat, produce and deli department should have blue lights,” he advises.
Neumann says that his company is in talks with other grocers about implementing its lighting solutions in their stores.
UVC light is now also becoming a part of robotic cleaning solutions in supermarkets. Badger Technologies, known for its floor-inspection and shelf-scanning autonomous robots, is pilot testing its Badger UV Disinfect to automate cleaning tasks. The Nicholasville, Ky.-based company partnered with UltraViolet Devices Inc. (UVDI) to develop the robot, which is capable of disinfecting surfaces with more than 99% efficacy in 40,000 square feet in around two hours, according to Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies. For safety reasons, the whole process takes place when the stores are closed to the public, he says.
Earlier this year, Retail Business Services, the services company of Ahold Delhaize USA, launched a pilot of UV disinfections robots from Cambridge, Mass.-based Ava Robotics in two of its affiliated distribution centers.
Rowland believes that the overall trend toward automation in the industry will continue, especially as “grocers want to ensure safe environments for employees and customers while improving overall shopping experiences.” As robots automate more mundane cleaning tasks in a safer manner, grocery employees will be empowered to deliver better customer service, he adds.
Along those same lines, it’s likely that more retailers will look for specifically engineered cleaning equipment to keep all areas of their stores cleaner, offers Bob Robinson, VP of sales at Kaivac Inc. Whereas grocers of the 1990s were obsessed with showing off shiny floors, today’s retailers that have experienced the pandemic will look for more deep-cleaning solutions, Robinson observes.
Hamilton, Ohio-based Kaivac offers equipment to help retailers more efficiently clean their floors, bathrooms and refrigerated equipment. Its solutions result in time and labor savings, and happier employees, according to Robinson. “We’ve tried to put a little dignity in the work, and make cleaning more fun,” he says. Retailers that operate supercenters and larger multipurpose stores are particularly interested in offering clean restrooms, since they want their customers to stay in their stores for longer times, Robinson notes, adding that he expects this trend to continue once COVID begins to subside.
Check Out That Checkout
One area of the store that was often overlooked before COVID-19 is the checkout belt. While many cashiers have been given the extra job of continuously wiping down the belts since the pandemic began – arming themselves with paper towels and cleaning solution – a new company is hoping to provide an easier alternative. FreshBelt Systems, based in Surrey, British Columbia, is offering an automated, continuous way to clean the checkout belt via a stainless-steel piece that can be retrofitted over any checkout belt, accompanied by a chamois cloth attached to a hose. The hose is attached to a pump ensuring that the proper amount of disinfectant or cleaner is consistently applied to keep the chamois moist. Retailers provide their own cleaners.
“As the belt turns, the device rolls on the conveyor and wipes it,” explains Trevor Hein, CEO and president of FreshBelt. “The pump is automatically triggered every four minutes or so, which keeps the belt just moist. Then we set up a motion detector nearby so that it will automatically shut off if the cashier leaves the area.”
The FreshBelt solution, which is relatively inexpensive at under $1,000 per checkout, is being tested by several Canadian grocers, and is now ready for prime time. Langley, British Columbia-based Save-On-Foods, the largest grocer in western Canada, with about 200 stores, has started to roll it out into all its stores, according to Hein. He adds that the company is ready to go into test mode with a major U.S. grocer, and that other retailers have expressed interest. Many grocers already know of Hein and his colleagues, since they’re affiliated with another company, Surrey-based AWP, which makes equipment like produce tables and bulk bins.
In Hein’s view, advanced cleanliness is here to stay, even after the pandemic improves. “Now that we’ve started installing these systems, I don’t think grocers are ever going to go back, honestly,” he says.
As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has had more time to study COVID-19, it recognized that the virus spreads less commonly through contact with contaminated surfaces, but can be spread by airborne transmission. In fact, the virus can linger in small droplets and particles in the air for anywhere from minutes to hours.
After the pandemic began last spring, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), an Atlanta-based global professional society that studies heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration, formed an epidemic task force to provide guidance on building safety. Luke Leung, part of the retail team for the task force, tells Progressive Grocer that he has good news to share with retailers on that front.
“When ASHRAE first came out with recommendations, we suggested retailers increase the amount of outside air,” Leung notes. “Now we are telling them to provide clean air, and that clean air can be provided by using MERV 13 filters in your HVAC system, which don’t cost much more than MERV 8 or MERV 5 filters. So now you can have your cake and eat it, too.”
At least one retailer has already picked up on the tip. Arlington, Va.-based Lidl US said last October that it planned to install air filtration systems rated MERV 13 or higher in all of its stores by the end of 2020.
The task force also suggests that retailers maintain a 40% to 60% relative humidity level in their stores to minimize mold growth or other kinds of microbials. “This is healthy for both humans and food,” Leung observes.
He additionally recommends that retailers continuously run their units to maintain continuous filtration of the air. Meanwhile, the airflow pattern of the store needs to be considered. Retailers should think about the placement of the supply and return diffusers to create an optimally safe airflow pattern. They should also make sure the velocity of air movement isn’t too high, Leung suggests.
To help businesses, the epidemic task force has released “Core Recommendations for Reducing Airborne Infectious Aerosol Exposure,” which is available on the ASHRAE website in a downloadable .pdf format. The society is also considering how to put its “lessons learned” into new standards, according to Leung.
At ASHRAE, clean air isn’t seen as just a COVID issue, he emphasizes. “Rather than just thinking of COVID, we can focus on some of the bigger threats to the future,” Leung explains. “Depending on where you are located, you could have impacts from climate change – like what happened with the wildfires in California. Then, of course, COVID brings in the dimension of infectious diseases in general, which is something to think about, especially if you have elderly citizens shopping in your stores.” He points out that by 2070, it’s expected that about 28% of the U.S. population will be age 60 or older.
Looking toward the future, Leung encourages retailers to consider ways to incorporate more outside air in their store development, particularly in areas where pollution isn’t a major factor. This is not only healthier, but also more conducive to a more pleasurable – and possibly more lucrative – shopping experience, he notes. For instance, why not expand your produce section into an outdoor farmers’ market? Or consider putting some restaurant seating outside, next to a water fountain feature.
“Consumers feel happy in this type of environment,” Leung asserts. “There’s actually science behind it.”