Selling groceries is not what it used to be
Masks and bandanas, yellow tape and plastic barriers: This is becoming the new normal for stores nationwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Seward Community Co-op, a local grocery store with three locations in the Minneapolis area, has been implementing changes brought on by the need to protect its workers as well as its customers.
“For us the crisis hit on a very personal level,” said Seward Co-op General Manager Sean Doyle. “We had an employee at the Franklin store that was diagnosed and tested positive with COVID-19.”
Although they were able to determine that the employee was not contagious during the single shift they worked while sick at the Franklin location, the diagnosis prompted even more drastic changes in the stores.
“That was the stage that set us in motion to really go, ‘Whoa, this is real; this is in our community and we really need to be thinking about how to respond to this in a caring and compassionate way,’” Doyle said.
They closed the Franklin store for five days to regroup and strategize.
Large Plexiglas squares were placed between the clerks and customers at the registers, where strips of tape also mark the six-foot distances recommended by the CDC.
He added that the salad and hot bars were all shut down, bulk products were taken offline to create more room in the stores, and curbside pickup was encouraged. Reusable grocery bags were also banned.
Doyle added that they’ve been redirecting staff from departments such as the deli that are no longer as busy. There are over 270 employees in the three store locations.
“We’ve been trying as best we’re able to not to lay people off,” Doyle noted, but he was unsure if they would be able to maintain that status in the coming weeks.
The co-op routinely operates its SEED program which allows customers to round-up their grocery purchase price to donate to predetermined recipient organizations, which share commitments to healthy communities. The second half of this month, however, round-up donations will go toward a staff solidarity fund.
“What we want to be able to do is have a more robust fund for those employees who are affected by COVID-19 and can’t work, who have exhausted all the resources that are available,” Doyle said.
“I like coming to work still. I feel good about it,” said Produce Manager Samuel Bjorgum at Seward’s 38th street location in South Minneapolis affectionately referred to as the “Friendship Store.”
“Our customers have been really amazing, and we appreciate that people have been limiting their trips shopping.”
One of the difficulties in maintaining social distancing is limiting the number of customers in the store. “It’s not necessarily a specific number [of people],” Bjorgum added. We’re just trying to monitor and make sure that the amount of people in the store is few enough so that everybody can have enough space.”
“We are having to learn how to do a whole new system of selling groceries,” said Friendship Store Meat and Seafood Department Manager Buzz Doyle.
He observed that it is difficult to maintain distance in close quarters such as the meat cutting room and having less workers behind the counter has slowed service.
He added that customers have generally been understanding and positive toward all of the store changes, but noted that it is hard to hear and be heard when wearing masks, and related that, once when trying to get close enough to understand a customer’s request, the customer had gotten angry.
Some workers including Doyle wore masks, but others wore no mask, or a bandana. The CDC recommends use of masks in public places where social distancing is difficult to maintain, especially grocery stores.
Doyle said it had been difficult finding facemasks, but he was hopeful that all staff would be outfitted with them by next week.
“I’ve never heard them [management] ask us to wear masks,” observed store clerk Stephen Parish who was not wearing a mask. “I wear gloves because it’s easier on my hands with all the paper bags.”
Parish works at the 38th street Seward in South Minneapolis.
“I probably should [worry], but I don’t,” he said. “I think for the most part we do things pretty safely, and most people are really happy that we are here.”
Analise Pruni is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder. She welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.