Suggestion Box: What Does COVID-19 Mean for the Future of Self-Serve Retail?

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity, and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word, or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

Recently, I listened to a food industry COVID-19 response talk that included John Raiche, the vice president for supply of UNFI, the main natural food supplier in the United States. There was a lot of talk about supplier production, warehousing, trucking, etc. Most of it was what you would expect — delays in production and shipping due to the sudden increased demand, difficulty sourcing ingredients, shortages of labor and trucking.

But one thing Raiche mentioned surprised me: his opinion on the future of bulk foods. “We believe that categories that have high human touch at retail for preparation or potential exposure to consumer touch at retail may be fundamentally altered going forward…. We’re not sure what bulk holds going forward,” he said.

We get our bulk foods from a number of vendors, large and small, but UNFI is a significant one, especially for basics like oats, rice, beans, granola, spices, etc. If UNFI gets out of the bulk business, we’ll have to find other sources, because the Co-op has no intention of getting out of bulk or reducing offerings unless our local health departments advise us differently.

This got me wondering if the coronavirus would lead to the end of self-serve at retail as we know it. And if that happened, how long would that last? Self-serve food has been proliferating at many food stores in recent years; think of all the hot and salad and olive bars you see at most grocery stores and restaurants. Could soup stations, pump your own coffee at Wawa, fast food places where you add your own condiments and fill your own soda, bagel and pastry bins in many stores where you grab your item with a wax tissue, and complimentary breakfast buffets at hotels all be gone? What about dairy case and freezer case handles? Will we have to wipe before we pull? Bring a hook?

Self-serve in grocery was once a revolutionary idea. Ever hear of a “Groceteria”? Apparently around 1915 in Seattle, Alvin Monson opened up some of the first grocery stores where you didn’t call in an order ahead or hand a clerk a list for clerks to put together orders from stockrooms. 

Before Alvin’s Groceteria, shoppers didn’t really get to pick brands, or even know how much items cost until they got a total for the whole order. Alvin changed that by putting items out on the shelf with a price, and letting customers pick from displays. His business quickly grew to 20 stores. Then World War I pulled Alvin out of the grocery business, and he suffered severe PTSD, which led to the end of his landscape-changing grocery career. His brother took over but didn’t have the business sense Alvin had, and went bankrupt in the 1920s. 

But other grocery stores saw the potential of self-service, and soon the supermarket was born and flourished, all based on the customer putting together their own order, what we now call “shopping.” (I view this as the evolution of hunter-gatherer foraging; we still use our senses, mind, and body to find and acquire food we like.)

Although current information does not show the virus typically spreading via eating or touching food, current info does show it can live a while on some surfaces, and the more people who touch the same surface, the more chance the virus can spread. To minimize that risk, food stores have been cleaning commonly-touched things like freezer doors, shopping carts, pin pads, etc. 

Apparently, including self-serve spots like salad bars, soup stations, bulk bins and coffee pots is too much human touch to manage in a healthy way. Or is UNFI’s perception of the public’s perception driving the thoughts about self-serve bulk? 

It makes me wonder about the rest of self-serve, since any item on a shelf can get touched by multiple shoppers. Maybe a person in a grocery aisle five minutes before you sneezed on an item or held it close to their face to read the ingredients and then put it back when they saw something objectionable, or decided they prefer a different brand, flavor or size. Or they picked up the wrong item. Can that spread the virus? 

The end of self-serve also raises the question of competing priorities (like so much of coronavirus). Many consumers were becoming more conscious of the impact of their purchases on the environment, especially the proliferation of unrecyclable plastic and other trash, and we were just starting to see things like plastic bag bans, reduced and/ or recyclable and compostable packaging, and more bulk. 

At Weavers Way, we were gearing up to roll out a reusable and returnable container system for tuna salad and other Prepared Foods items, along with some meat, deli and produce items. We had just received Health Department approval for the containers and our internal cleaning processes, but now everything surrounding this project is delayed. 

It will be interesting to see what becomes of self-serve and reusable containers once COVID-19 restrictions relax a little. Will people be afraid to refill or reuse containers? It would be a shame if coronavirus means more trash; I was hoping nature was giving us a fire drill for global warming. We have shown we can change our daily habits pretty dramatically and quickly for the good of the population as a whole, which is what may be needed to combat global warming.

suggestions and responses:

s: “Please stock Ziploc bags that fit the nut dispensers. The ties are just more plastic, and they untie as easily as they tie, so the unzipped bags are a pain. Also, using a measuring cup to then pour into a bag is at least introducing nut allergies, and at worst unsanitary.”

r: (Mike, MA) We do have Ziploc gallon-size bags for sale for 35 cents; ask a staffer if you don’t see them. Our bulk department’s bins are not airtight and create lots of crumbs and some inadvertent spillage, so in general, it is not a safe place for people with nut allergies.

s: “Skoy scrubbers.”

r: (Norman) We’re looking into it; thanks for the suggestion.

s: “Bar dish soap.”

r: (Norman) We stock one or two brands at our Chestnut Hill and Ambler stores and can look into it for Mt. Airy.

s: “We like egg rolls. Can we get some?”

r: (Norman) Any of our eggs can be rolled using an inclined plane. It’s good fun you can have at home during quarantine. Involve a cat for extra entertainment.