8 steps supermarkets are taking to protect customers and employees during the Coronavirus outbreak

Raj Sangha
by Raj Sangha

How supermarkets are adapting to Covid-19:

Customer service is a bit of a sore point for grocery retailers. With the sector introducing a host of new technology into stores in recent years, including self-service kiosks, cashierless checkouts and queuing systems for click and collect pick-ups, there’s a strong fear that some customers will be left feeling isolated. 

But in our Covid-19 era, where consumers are encouraged to socially distance themselves from others, providing good customer service has proved a little more challenging (especially when it is from behind a Plexiglas ‘sneeze guard’ window). 

How grocery retailers can streamline their in-store pick-up (click & collect) process during Covid-19

Here are some of the many changes supermarkets have recently implemented in-store to continue serving their customers during the coronavirus outbreak, ranging from the obvious to the innovative:

Using floor markers to encourage social distancing

Social distancing floor markers inside Walmart. Source: Business Insider

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising consumers to stand six feet apart from others, supermarkets are taking special wait line management steps to encourage customers to adhere to these measures. 

The US supermarket chain Albertsons, for instance, has recently installed designated waiting points across all its stores, with floor markers at checkout stands, as well as in the bakery, deli and pharmacy departments. It’s also asking customers to wait until the person in front of them has finished collecting their groceries before proceeding to the checkout. 

Limiting the number of people in stores

Customers in Birmingham line up to visit Asda. Source: BBC

It’s now commonplace to see supermarket lines stretching down the street and around the corner as grocery retailers have implemented stricter policies on the number of shoppers allowed in stores.

With many adopting the one-in-one-out policy, this way supermarkets can monitor how many shoppers are in-store and enable social distancing for both customers and employees.

In an email to customers, UK supermarket chain Asda had taken new measures to stop the pandemic from spreading, included extra staffing at the front of stores limiting the number of shoppers inside – they also asked people to only touch items they intended to purchase. They have even started trialling a virtual queuing system at a number of its stores that allows customers to queue remotely via their mobile phones. Find out more about Asda’s queuing app here.

Dedicated hours for vulnerable shoppers

At a time of stockpiling and panic buying, the prospect of navigating their way through hectic supermarket aisles can be daunting for vulnerable shoppers, such as those over 70 years old or with health issues. That’s why many supermarket chains, such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s, are offering special hours for the elderly and vulnerable to shop, as well as offering  special opening hours and checkouts for healthcare workers.

Over in the US, special shopping hours for vulnerable shoppers has also become commonplace, with Target announcing a dedicated shopping hour every Wednesday morning.

Target’s Chairman and CEO, Brian Cornell, said: “As our team continues to adapt to the country’s fast-changing needs, we’re announcing plans to reduce our store hours and offer dedicated shopping hours for vulnerable guests.” 

Placing limits on select products

Many UK supermarkets, such as ASDA and Tesco, are only now placing a limit on the number of items shoppers can purchase at a time, with Tesco also limiting it’s online shoppers with a threshold of 80 items per customer.

However, competitors Aldi and Lidl placed limits a while ago – their strong presence throughout Europe, particularly Italy, would have provided them with the insights to know demand stayed at higher levels than usual after the worst panic-buying subsided. 

And in the US, major chains such as Publix, Kroger and Stop & Shop have placed limits on sanitary products as well as cold and flu medicines, too.

Investing in online delivery

Online only grocery retailer Ocado has stopped accepting new customer. Source: Annie Spratt

Shoppers wanting to order online food deliveries are faced with hours-long wait times before being able to place an order, and next available delivery dates are weeks away instead of days. To help ease the lengthy wait times, many grocery retailers are expanding their delivery teams. 

The UK government has allowed extensions to van drivers’ hours and is encouraging local authorities to waive curfews on deliveries to stores during late hours.

Tesco brought on 8,000 new drivers to help with deliveries and announced it had already appointed 12,500 new staff, while Waitrose has temporarily moved many of the delivery drivers at department store partner, John Lewis, to its food retail operation. Online-only supermarket operation, Ocado, said it will no longer be signing up new customers due to being inundated with orders.

Supermarkets are also being given access to government databases in order to prioritize deliveries for the elderly and vulnerable.

Alternative delivery options

With online delivery slots at all the major grocery retailers booked up weeks in advance, supermarket leaders are looking at new ways of getting food to those who are self-isolating. Some of the new delivery options include teaming up with taxi companies and takeaway delivery businesses.

UK grocer Morrisons said it has delivered 10,000 boxes of essential groceries through couriers rather than its normal online delivery network, and the grocery retailer is extending its online and quick delivery service via Amazon’s Prime Now subscription option. In another innovative move, British department store retailer, Marks & Spencer, has paired up with takeaway courier Deliveroo to deliver essentials such as bread and milk to customers.

There is also some speculation that leading grocery retailers could start closing stores in order to concentrate resources on bigger units that could better support online delivery, but nothing has been confirmed.

Improving their in-store pick up (click and collect) process

With online delivery times weeks away, many consumers are opting for in-store or curbside pick-up options. However, this can lead to lengthy wait times for customers, which can be counterproductive for social distancing measures. 

To eliminate the need for physical lines, grocery store retailers are implementing digital queueing systems that allow customers to notify retailers as soon as they’ve arrived in-store by joining a virtual line, and to preselect pick-up times.

For instance, Tesco use Qudini’s Queue Management System to enable customers to notify their click and collect teams by SMS, weblink, QR code, virtual kiosk or host as soon as they’ve arrived, and customers are notified with status updates via the same channels as soon as their order is ready to collect.

Find out how Tesco improved its click & collect process

Installing ‘sneeze guards’ at counters

A Plexiglas sneeze guard protector in Barons Market, San Diego. Source: San Diego Union-Tribute

To keep both customers and employees safe, the majority of major supermarkets are planning to, or have already installed, ‘sneeze guard’ windows at counters. In the US, Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons and Target have implemented sneeze guards, while the big four supermarket chains in the UK – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda – are in the process of doing so.

These are some of the many ways grocery store retailers have adjusted their operations during the coronavirus outbreak, showing a great deal of innovation in their transformative efforts.

Enhance your supermarket operations while enabling social distancing during Covid-19

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