Area grocery stores are remaining open to give residents access to essential food and household items, but all are taking steps to keep their facilities clean and customers and employees safe from the coronavirus. Stores are taking new measures to limit the number of customers allowed inside, sanitized properly, and offer seniors a chance to safely shop.
“We’re only allowing a certain number of people, 120, in the store at a time,” St. James Country Mart Manager Gary McDowell explained. To limit customer distance, arrows have been marked on the floor to encourage customers to walk through the store by following the directions. “We are trying to keep people from being close together,” McDowell said.
Country Mart stores across the region are following all sanitization directions provided by the Center for Disease Control and local health departments, having employees continuously wiping down door handles on the freezers, cash registers, grocery carts, and employee areas. “Our department heads are doing a really good job keeping things clean,” McDowell said.
“We have shields ordered (to be installed at the check-out area,” McDowell said. “Our cashiers are taking a step back to maintain the six-foot rule, but we do have shields coming.”
The dining area near the deli section was also closed to customers to keep people from grouping together. McDowell commended his employees for doing a “great job” in keeping the store clean to the best of their abilities to keep themselves and customers safe.
While Country Mart does not have a specific time for seniors to shop, McDowell encouraged seniors to come early in the morning when the customer traffic is slow. One area McDowell said has impacted his store the most has been getting consistent orders and truck arrivals bringing in fresh products.
“We are only getting about half our trucks,” he said.
While those arrivals have increased after the initial run on stores when citizens were first warned of the danger of interacting during this time, there have still been issues getting items the store needs, such as toilet paper and certain foods.
Mace Supermarket in Cuba is also taking steps to ensure employees and customers can come to the facility and feel safe.
“We’ve installed shields for the cashiers. We are separating the cashiers from the customers,” owner Randy Mace explained. “We have a limit to how many people are in the store at once. We are also keeping our carts clean.”
The store had a professional cleaning service come last week to sanitize the carts and cashiers are cleaning cart handles as each customer comes into the facility. Sanitizing hand wipes are available at the entrance to the store, although Mace said Purell has been in high demand and difficult to get over the past few weeks.
“We have masks available for our employees if they want them. We aren’t making them wear them, but they are available,” Mace said.
A special shopping hour is offered at Mace from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday and Sunday for seniors in the community to come shop without large crowds. Mace said the store is following all health department mandates and taking recommended steps. “We will do whatever they need us to do,” Mace said.
The store is using its Facebook page to get information out to its customers on when new products come in, offering recipes for those cooking at home, and communicating with customers. Mace said he hopes people will learn from this pandemic and think ahead during the winter months about what items they might want to have extra for when the cold and flu season arrives in the spring.
Supplies, he said, have been difficult to come by during this time, forcing the store to pull its weekly ads since product and price cannot be guaranteed. “Due to prices and our quantities, we’ve had to suspend those ads,” Mace said. “We’re running short on products. That’s why a lot of stores are pulling them.” He added he hopes to begin the weekly sales in May, but it will depend on what the situation looks like then.
Higher prices are also a real problem for grocery stores and have affected businesses as they navigate through this process. “Eggs always go high at Easter. I have my markup as I always do and the suppliers have their prices. There is no one around here that (is price gouging),” Mace explained. “We have been here for over 50 years. We want our people to be here year after year. We all have to pass on our increased costs.”
As supplies normalize, these supply- and price-related problems will equalize, but stores and customers are both being forced to deal with the economics of the pandemic.
Matt Montgomery, director of procurement, merchandising, and sales for Town and Country Supermarkets Inc., said local Town and Country and Country Mart stores are following the guidelines being given to them by health departments and states.
“We are basically following state and local guidelines and we have certainly increased our frequency of cleaning and sanitizing our stores,” he said. “As of midnight (Monday), we have new occupancy guidelines from the state that we are or will be following that are based on the size of the store.”
He added that the company is “communicating frequently” with employees, encouraging the practice of safety measures and cleanliness. Some stores will even close for Easter Sunday to give employees a day off and to allow stores to perform cleaning and sanitization without customers present.
Store operators are encouraged that some of the preliminary hardships they initially faced have slowed and soon facilities will be better stocked and able to serve their communities.