In my four-decade career in the grocery business, I have attended many industry conferences. In addition to walking the conference exhibits and show floor to observe new products and services, I have always attended as many workshops as possible. I especially enjoy the workshops, which include retailers participating in a panel discussion format.
It’s very educational to hear directly from those individuals who are working in the trenches. One question I have heard asked many times to retailers over the years is: “What keeps you up at night?”
The answer to that question, over the years, has had many responses. However, in the last 3-5 years, there has been a common theme from retailers answering this question.
In a pre-pandemic world, the answer I heard many times was “food safety.” However, with the increase in foodborne illnesses in recent years, which has caused severe sickness, death, and economic and societal loss, retailers are concerned about their food safety responsibility in the supply chain.
They are on the front line of food safety in the minds of consumers. Regardless, suppose a food safety incident started on the farm, in a manufacturing facility, during transportation, or a grocery store. In that case, the consumer who gets ill looks for answers, and resolution, from the retailer where they purchased the suspected cause of their foodborne illness.
Consumers also agree food safety is an issue. After COVID experiences, they are also concerned about their health and safety while purchasing their food.
During this last year, they have thought about virus transmission in many aspects of their life about which they may never have thought. But, of course, the visit to the grocery store, with multiple touchpoints, is high on their list of concerns. This is one reason we saw a skyrocketing increase in the use of online shopping across the industry.
There is a relationship shoppers have with their grocery retailers, trusting measures have been taken to ensure the safe handling of food; making sure it’s fresh, not out-of-date, not damaged or tampered with, and shopper touchpoints with salad bars, delis, etc., have been minimized. In addition, retailers take many other measures to ensure the safety of the food they are selling.
COVID made shoppers much more aware of the points of shared contact with other customers in a store; this includes shopping carts and baskets, hot bar and salad bar serving utensils, touchpads at the checkout, as well as chilled and frozen food case door handles, etc.
Even though we have learned the spread of COVID occurs through droplets in the air and not through the virus left on hard surfaces, our attention to keeping surfaces clean and washing our hands after touching shared surfaces has reduced the incidence of other illnesses.
Grocery retailers contributed to this. For example, the meticulous cleaning of shopping cart/basket handles, hand sanitizing stations throughout the store, cleaning the front-end space between customers, and requesting social distancing between shoppers.
These efforts have been successful in helping mitigate the transmission of COVID and other illnesses, such as the seasonal flu. As a result, the occurrence of the seasonal flu is down this year. Some of the decreases in flu cases result from more people receiving a flu vaccine and increased awareness of how germs and viruses are spread.
Personally, in my circle of family and friends, no one has been sick with a head cold or the flu in at least 12 months.
What will shoppers expect post-pandemic? First, they will expect the continuation of the virus mitigation efforts which retailers employed this past year. What once might have been thought to be short-term efforts, necessary only until we got “to the other side of COVID,” will now be seen as expected services and incorporated into retailers’ standard operating procedures.
No one likes getting sick, and grocery retailers have proven they can reduce the chances of their shoppers coming into contact with many types of viruses.