Food Retail Has Evolved Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Food retail services have gone through many phases since the pandemic started.
Food retail services have gone through many phases since the pandemic started.

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has been spreading worldwide since the beginning of this year. The past month in particular has seen the virus spread rapidly, causing the declaration of a worldwide pandemic. This pandemic has had a direct and significant effect on the global food industry, particularly for food retail businesses who are deemed essential services. They are at the frontline of this crisis, providing food and essential household items to local communities. Food retail has gone through a dramatic change in the span of just one month. Here are the stages that the food retail industry has gone through since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold worldwide, and what food retail could look like in the future.

Sales skyrocket as public starts panic-buying

When the global pandemic was declared and many public establishments like schools were closed, the general public began to worry. This caused a surge in buying, called ‘panic-buying’, where people were buying mainstay items in bulk. Household items like toilet paper, paper towel, cleaning products, baby formula and wipes were flying off the shelves faster than food retail workers could re-stock them. This caused a temporary surge in the overall sales for food retail stores. At the same time however, there was an immediate shortage in the items that people were buying in bulk. Some grocery stores had barren shelves for days before the next shipment of those items came in. In response, many food retail outlets, especially larger ones like Walmart and Costco, began putting limits on how much of a popular item one person could buy. This helped to slow down the demand enough that the supply could catch up. Slowly shelves began filling up again, but depending on the time of day — or day of the week — shoppers could still find particular household items out of stock at their local stores.

The increase in shoppers and the intensity of the situation put a lot of stress and pressure on food retail staff. Staff that worked at the cash, or those re-stocking shelves, were met with increased job demands and stressed-out consumers. Some staff were also being re-allocated to different positions within the business to adapt to the new requirements for food retail during the COVID-19 outbreak. This included some staff being designated specifically to re-stocking shelves, while others were to maintain the increased cleaning and sanitizing protocols in order to keep up with the new COVID-19 preventative measures. Also, some stores implemented ‘senior hours’ which were allotted times specifically for only seniors to be allowed in the store. These hours were often before regular shopping hours, so some staff were designated to come and work at those earlier times.

Some new positions were also created in response to the changing food retail environment. In order to maintain physical distancing within the premises, food retailers created specific positions for monitoring physical distancing within the establishment. Food retailers also began restricting the number of customers allowed in the store at one time, and positions were created to monitor the entrances and keep a tally of the people entering and exiting the store. Lines outside of stores were not uncommon as people waited to be allowed into the store. This also required dedicated staff to monitor the lines and enforce physical distancing between customers. As food retail businesses attempted to adapt to the changing environment, workers were also adapting to their new and changing roles.

Changes to operations bring big costs

After a few weeks of food retailers adapting to the pandemic environment, the new ‘normal’ began to set in. Those consumers who were involved in panic-buying were no longer buying in bulk, so there was a slow decrease in demand on items that once had shortages. This meant that sales began to stabilize and normalize at this time. However, as consumers adapted to life in self-isolation, their eating habits changed. As a result, some product categories began to see a higher than normal amount of sales. These were food staples such as pasta, bread, canned goods and flour. People were cooking more meals at home, and many were baking more frequently. This led to these food staples experiencing shortages due to the high demand. Demand for grocery items were up 400% and food manufacturers began focusing their attention on only producing items that were in high demand.

At the same time, some retailers began increasing the prices for particular food items and household goods due to the increase in demand. Toilet paper in particular saw a dramatic price increase in some retailers. This price increase was met with scrutiny and criticism, with some governmental bodies putting regulations in place to fine those retailers caught price gouging.

Food retailers also began to experience increased costs as they continued to operate during the pandemic. Food shortages from the supply chain meant that food retailers were paying more for product. Also, retailers decided to close specific sections of the establishment that involved self-serve or high-touch areas. These areas included self-serve bulk bins and salad and soup bars. Closing these areas meant that food stock had to be disposed of and this contributed to financial loss.

Other measures that food retailers were putting in place also came with big costs. The extra cleaning and sanitizing that was being performed meant that more cleaning products and chemicals needed to be purchased. While these measures were essential to preventing the spread of COVID-19, they did not come without significant cost.

Many businesses began enforcing a no-cash rule, meaning that customers could only pay by cards such as credit, debit or gift cards. While this helped to enforce physical distancing between staff and customers, some business was lost as some customers could not pay with cards, either by choice or circumstance. Also, some retailers began restricting customers from using reusable bags from home and only permitting the use of plastic bags from the store. This meant that stores had to pay for more plastic bags to have enough supply to enforce this rule.

Food retailers also aimed to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for all staff, but obtaining the amount needed was difficult and costly. Safety measures such as installing plexiglass barriers and providing additional training for staff also added up to significant financial costs.

Employees speak up for better treatment

With food retailers declared essential services, staff in these businesses became the frontline of the pandemic. They continued to adapt to their work environments, many of which were still shifting as health and safety recommendations continued to change. Some food retailers began reducing their operating hours in order to maintain the new cleaning and sanitizing standards in place. This led to some staff being laid off or temporarily unemployed. At the same time, some food retailers continued to experience a shortage of labor as more workers had to take time off or quit their jobs due to COVID-19 illness or caring for a family member who was sick.

For those staff that continued to work, food retailers continued to provide protection measures to keep staff safe. Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks were provided, but not consistently across the board. At this time, many workers began questioning their health and safety while working during the pandemic.

In light of all the new expectations and job risks, employees at food retailers began demanding better wages. They asserted that they were essential workers, and that they should be treated and paid as such. Labor unions began voicing their dissatisfaction with how some food retailers were treating their employees. Many asserted that there was not enough PPE provided to keep staff safe, and that they were not being paid while having to quarantine at home due to COVID-19. Labor unions also questioned whether or not staff were being put at risk by continuing to work in these conditions, as the virus can survive on surfaces for extended periods of time. Some food retailers also began experiencing small outbreaks of the virus within their stores.

What is next for food retail in the COVID-19 pandemic?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout the world, it is expected that these current conditions will continue for the time being. Food retailers will continue to be essential services and provide the public with the foods and household items they need to stay home and stay safe. Low stock supply of particular items will most likely continue for some time, but if food retailers put restrictions on these items, it will help to keep the shelves stocked.

There is a growing concern that the greater food supply chain is already experiencing a shortage as farmers and workers in food production and processing struggle to meet demand. Also, physical distancing restrictions are making it harder for these operations to produce efficiently, which is leading to a supply shortage. Food retailers could be seeing the drastic effects of these shortages in the not-so-distant future.

For food workers, the environment could change in unpredictable ways. Many food retailers are already being called out on their treatment of their staff, with some workers quitting their jobs completely and labor unions appealing to government bodies for help. Other food retailers are stepping up their game and doing what is absolutely necessary to keep their staff, business and community safe. These businesses will most likely continue to see success and higher that normal sales as they operate throughout the pandemic.

What will food retail look like post-pandemic?

Once the pandemic passes, there are some changes made now that could very well continue post-pandemic. In the current climate, many consumers are opting to use grocery pick-up or delivery services so that they do not have to enter into the premises. This type of operation is currently seeing an immense surge in demand, and this demand could continue after the pandemic has passed. Consumers are also being encouraged to use contact-less payments at the check-out, and many food retailers could continue to encourage this in the future.

Other protective measures like plexiglass screens and increased cleaning and santization could very well continue on as well. The benefits of these measures are becoming very clear in this environment, so it is not unlikely that food retailers will keep these measures in place.

The food retail sector could also see an increase in worker demands for better wages, as people who work in these jobs are seeing and understanding their value and importance. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear how essential the staff in food retail environments are. Before the pandemic, these workers were often underpaid and underrepresented. Now they are essential to the very lifeblood of our society as we navigate this pandemic, and this notion will not be lost once the threat of COVID-19 goes down.

Despite the struggles the food retail industry is experiencing, current research indicates that trust in the food industry remains in some markets. According to UK research and training charity IGD, trust in the food industry to provide quality products is up 6% from February. This is very promising, and illustrates that despite the challenges faced by food retailers, shoppers continue to trust that businesses will provide them with the quality products they need. It is likely that after the pandemic, shoppers will continue to value and support their local food retailers. After all, food retail businesses are at the forefront of this pandemic and providing their communities with the food and items they need to survive these challenging times.