I regret that this will be my third Shuttle column in a row devoted to COVID-19. I further regret that the prospects of changing the subject anytime soon are unlikely.
In the grocery biz — just like in the world in general — the virus is always in the foreground. It informs all decisions, modifies all actions, and changes all plans. Before COVID-19, grocery business analysts were fond of saying our industry was going through a period of “disruption.” They were more prescient than they could have imagined.
In the midst of this pandemic, news happens constantly and grows old quick, making the Shuttle an imperfect deliverer of information. The gap between when I write this column and when you read it will be filled by countless developments, good and bad; new hopes and new fears; and dozens of mendacious presidential tweets.
But despite COVID-19’s omnipresence, we are carrying on. We own our cooperative enterprise together; it was created for and exists to meet our common needs. That fact, coupled with our status as an “essential business,” obligates us to navigate the storm.
Business-wise, the Co-op is in good shape. Our cash reserves are strong, and despite significant alterations to our operations, we’ve been able to maintain a sustainable level of sales. But as we look ahead to the remainder of 2020, three things are on our minds more than anything else.
The first — probably our biggest concern — is that by all accounts, social distancing seems here to stay for a while. (I’m trying to call it “physical distancing,” with limited success.) Operationally, we can learn to live with just about everything else: face masks, Plexiglas guards, idle hot bars, enhanced disinfecting regimes, and the like.
But physical distancing is operationally problematic, especially in our Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill stores. We have been operating with customer caps — currently 12 in Mt. Airy, 20 in Chestnut Hill — and while mostly everyone is taking the lines outside in stride, it is negatively impacting sales, and in time, people will begin to fatigue of waiting to go grocery shopping when the marketplace offers alternatives.
Another thing that’s evidently not going away anytime soon is the demand for home delivery and curbside pickup services. We’re now doing more than 800 home delivery/curbside pickups each week, a figure that would have been unimaginable just a month ago.
We’re only able to fulfill this number of orders through a combination of adding staff and reducing regular business hours. The Co-op is set up as a retailer, not a fulfillment center. At some point, we will feel pressure to resume regular business hours. Finding a way to do this while continuing to meet the demand for home delivery and curbside pickup will be challenging.
The third problem we’re grappling with is our senior discount. At the start of this insanity, we extended what had been the Senior Tuesday discount to Monday through Friday, in order to better spread out our senior shoppers throughout the week. We’ve further extended it to include the “High Risk Shopper” hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.
The senior discount — 10% off, stackable on top of the 5% working member discount — was sustainable when it was a Tuesday-only thing. Now that it’s more than five days a week, it’s not sustainable, at least not in the long term. (For now, the short term, its fine.) But how do we get back to offering the senior discount just once a week when social distancing continues to necessitate spreading shoppers across several days?
All of these problems are surmountable; they’re just conundrums with which we must grapple until we land on the solutions. What remains our fundamental challenge, our paramount issue, is making sure we continue to do everything we can to keep customers and employees safe at a time when coming together in public is an inherently unsafe act. For us to succeed, we will continue to rely on your support.
I know I speak for all of my colleagues when I say the love you’ve shown us during the pandemic is, above all else, what’s kept us going. Your kind words, your thoughtful emails and Facebook posts, your generous donations to our tip jar, and those smiles we can clearly see despite the masks — all of these things are the bedrock of our Co-op’s sustainability. Thank you so very much.
See you around the Co-op.