GM's Corner: Coronavirus Could Affect the Co-op, But We’re Ready For It

Jon Roesser, Weavers Way General Manager

As the Shuttle goes to print, the media is feeding us a steady, almost certainly unhealthy diet of coronavirus news, which changes seemingly by the hour. And while the man who is currently president of the United States says the virus may just “go away,” more serious people are developing contingency plans.

Fortunately, here at Weavers Way, we’re pretty good at this sort of thing. Hard experience has made us experts in crisis management. Whether it’s operating a store for weeks on backup power, or recovering from our CFO’s credit card fraud, we’re not easily spooked. Smart planning coupled with agility and a knack for improvisation are hallmarks of the Co-op’s work culture.

Based on current information, it seems this coronavirus — COVID-19 — will be quite disruptive, though perhaps no more than a severe outbreak of the seasonal flu. If that’s the case, Co-op operations should be minimally affected. But the possibility exists for things to be worse, with scenarios ranging from widespread product shortages to large numbers of people unable to leave their homes. And food being a necessity, all elements of our food system — from growers to retailers — need to figure out how to get food into the hands of consumers, regardless of the circumstances.

Two factors make contingency planning particularly challenging for us as a food retailer.

The first is that we are extremely dependent on a complex supply chain involving food growers, producers, wholesalers, and transporters. This supply chain is remarkable, but pace is critical, and it wouldn’t take much to throw things out of whack. 

Take bananas, for example. Bananas on grocery store shelves today were harvested in South America about four weeks ago. Green, unripe bananas that are being picked today will be on store shelves sometime in early April. Containers filled with bananas are currently working their way through the chain on trucks, trains, and ships to ensure that on any given day, customers, whether they are shopping at Walmart or Weavers Way, never need worry about supply. Bananas are forever available “on demand.” 

A similarly complex logistical system exists for just about every product we sell, from chicken breasts to chocolate bars. If there were to be widespread travel bans or general quarantines — even quarantines hundreds or thousands of miles away from Philadelphia — it could easily disrupt these delicate systems. 

The second factor that makes contingency planning challenging is that ours is an extremely labor-intensive operation. A Rite Aid or an Aldi can maintain normal operations with two or three people in the building. At the Co-op, our full-service business model relies on cooks, butchers, deli counter staff, cashiers, and a host of “mongers,” our professionals working in cheese, bread, fish, produce, and wellness.

If, say, 20 or 30 percent of our staff couldn’t get to work, it would seriously challenge our ability to maintain normal operations. Of course, if that many of our employees couldn’t get to work, presumably a proportionate number of our members wouldn’t be able to shop either. 

This is a reminder that we aren’t a traditional grocery store. We’re a cooperative, and as such, we exist not to make profit but to meet the needs of our member-owners. In normal circumstances, we best meet our members’ needs by operating fully stocked, clean, friendly, and efficient grocery stores. 

But what if circumstances aren’t normal? In a pandemic, meeting members’ needs could mean shifting our business model. 

For one thing, we might see a significant uptick in requests for home delivery. It’s a little-known fact that we offer home delivery out of all three of our stores. We have a partnership with Instacart, the online grocery delivery service provider, so our customers (members and non-members alike) can shop at any hour and get groceries delivered same day or next. 

We also offer our own in-house delivery service. This service is a member-only benefit and is primarily for members experiencing a hardship, permanently or otherwise, that makes it hard to get out of the house (chronic illness, recovery from surgery, new moms, etc.).  

It’s possible that COVID-19 will mean many of our members will either be unable or unwilling to venture out of their homes, and even more might be skittish about spending time in a crowded public space like a grocery store. We’re currently developing plans to significantly increase our home-delivery capabilities. 

Our in-house home delivery can be set up to be free of direct human contact. Groceries can be boxed up and left on a member’s front step. 

We would expect any increase in home delivery services to be temporary. We all know that one of the things that makes the Co-op’s stores the special places they are is the sense of community we feel when shopping in the stores we all own together. Social interaction is fundamentally vital to our culture. No disease can overpower our need for human interaction. 

See you around the Co-op.