GM's Corner — The New Rule for Grocers: Make Your Store a Safe Place to Shop

Jon Roesser, Weavers Way General Manager

For five years, I have been the Co-op’s general manager, and for five years, my colleagues have had to suffer while I incessantly hectored them about “the four fundamentals of great grocers” — great food, competitively priced, presented in a pleasant shopping environment, all delivered with outstanding customer service. It’s a fireproof, four-part stratagem for success, guaranteed to earn you a spot in the Grocer’s Hall of Fame.

And I was always right. Until I wasn’t.

In the spring of 2020, there’s only one fundamental that matters when it comes to selling groceries: Your store must be a safe place to shop.

During this COVID-19 crisis, it has been gratifying to hear us referred to as an “essential” business — Governor Wolf has gone so far as to describe us as “life sustaining” — but the burden has then fallen to us to figure out how to continue to operate in a way that’s safe for customers and staff.

Some decisions were easy. Put hand sanitizers throughout the stores, step up cleaning regimes, shut down the hot and salad bars, pull the self-service scoops from the bulk department, etc.

Other decisions were harder to make, and more consequential. Open an hour later and close an hour earlier so that staff can restock and clean more effectively. Limit the number of customers allowed in the stores at any given time. Install Plexiglas guards at checkout.

Our single biggest operational change has been related to home delivery and curbside pickup. In a very short span of time, we went from fulfilling about a dozen home deliveries in a week to about 135 in a day. And despite this massive scaling up, we still haven’t been able to meet demand.

We’re working hard to increase our home delivery and curbside pickup capacity. It is much harder than it seems. The Co-op is set up as a retail operation, not a fulfillment center.

Having employees picking orders for home delivery customers while the stores are open for business further limits the number of customers who can shop in the store, thanks to our customer caps. Picking orders after hours is challenging, since that’s when most of the stocking and cleaning gets done.

Our intention is to find a way to make sure all members who need home delivery and curbside pickup are able to get one order fulfilled once a week.

Predictably, with each change we’ve made, there have been calls for us to do more. This is our dilemma. As grocery stores are one of the very few places where people are still able to come together, they are, let’s be clear, inherently dangerous. So there is no limit to the number of controls that can be put into place.

The only truly safe grocery store is a closed one. Want to guarantee no one gets COVID-19 in your store? Shut it down.

And since we don’t want to do that, our goal is to make the stores as safe as we possibly can while keeping them open. Fortunately, as member-owners, you have been overwhelmingly supportive and understanding, and you’ve also shown your willingness to do your part.

For the time being, we continue to ask that you send just one member of your household to the Co-op one day a week for a full shop. While inside, maintain social distance (6 feet) and minimize conversations. Use the hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes for basket handles and shopping carts. If at all possible, don’t pay with cash.

None of this is easy, especially for us. We pride ourselves on being a community “Third Place,” where we all come together for community connection. The idea of coming to the Co-op once a week with our heads down, treating grocery shopping as nothing more than a chore, cuts against our Co-op culture.

But for the time being, nothing matters more than for everyone to feel like our stores are as safe as they can possibly be.

Just a few short weeks ago, our business was incredibly predictable and, admittedly, not too terribly exciting. The hour of the day, the day of the week, and the month of the year told us just about everything we needed to know about customer demand.

Now, with so many people out of work and so few venturing out, nothing’s predictable. There’s no lunch crowd, and no after-work dinner rush. There’s no Friday Night community dinner in Ambler, and for most folks, there’s no longer a weekend.

All of this is rather unnerving, and it’s hard to think much beyond how we’ll get through the next few weeks. But rest assured, we’re already working on our “Post COVID-19 Business Strategy.” First thing’s first: When this is finally over, we’re going to throw one heck of a party. Everyone’s invited.

See you around the Co-op.