Local grocery stores adjust to new normal under COVID-19

Some seeing average sale double, supply chain catching up

An outpost cashier works behind a plexiglass shield installed at all checkout lines. Courtesy of Outpost

Last updated on March 31st, 2020 at 04:57 pm

The past two weeks has been a whirlwind for Milwaukee-area grocers weathering the storm of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the outbreak sparked unprecedented demand as panicked shoppers crowded stores and cleared shelves of nonperishables and other essentials such as toilet paper and disinfectant wipes.

Now that “panic shopping” has died down and supply chains are catching up to demand, local grocery stores are adapting to a new normal, in which consumer demand for groceries is still significantly higher than normal.

“To put this in perspective, for the average citizen out there, about half of their food dollars are spent in grocery, the other half is spent in food service– restaurants, bars, etc.,” said Ted Balistreri, co-owner of Sendik’s Food Markets. “Virtually 100 percent is now being borne by grocery.”

Milwaukee-based Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative has seen its average sale per shopper double, which means people are buying more items and shopping less frequently.

Limiting shopping trips is among a set of guidelines Outpost issued last week, warning that the business would not be able to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic if shoppers did not comply.

The guidelines also include leaving reusable bags at home, bringing sanitizing wipes to use on carts and baskets, and keeping distance from other shoppers. 

Margaret Mittelstadt, director of community relations, said shoppers have done a good job so far. As extra reminders, Outpost’s four locations now have six-foot distancing markers and Plexiglass partitions at each checkout line as well as signage posted throughout.

“It’s been a really fast learning curve for a lot of people and now that we’re all coming together on that same page, our habits are adjusting,” she said.

Grocery suppliers also have had to adjust. Outpost’s main distributor is now sending two extra truckloads of product per week. Mittelstadt said in-demand items such as paper products and hand sanitizer are still out of stock, but gaps in the supply chain will narrow as sales level off and shoppers buy only what they need.

Supply for Sendik’s 17 stores was greatly strained by the initial onslaught of demand when COVID-19 hit the area, but its supply chain reacted “fabulously,” said Balistreri. Similar to most grocery stores, Sendik’s shelves have been restocked aside from key items including toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and disinfectants. 

Sendik’s is also seeing shoppers double their basket size while taking fewer trips to the store, said Balistreri. He also noticed business has spread more throughout the week as customers work less or from home and have more time for a weekday grocery run.

He anticipates what he calls this “temporary normal” phase to last through April and likely into May.

In the meantime, Sendik’s has rolled out several in-store health-first safety efforts including plexiglass shields at checkout lines and a 7-8 a.m. shopping hour for at-risk shoppers. Employees have been told to stay at home if they are sick, and reassured that if they are not comfortable coming to work they will not lose their jobs. 

Over the last two weeks, said Balistreri, Sendik’s has added 60 people to its almost-2,000-person employee base.

“Our online business (delivery and curbside orders) has been in really high demand and we are staffing that up as quickly as we can because right now it’s long a waiting period for customers once they put in an order to get their groceries,” he said.

Meanwhile at Groppi’s Food Market in Bay View, it’s been “business as usual,” said manager Eric Bruesewitz. Like most grocery stores, demand peaked during the week of March 16, but sales have since returned to near-normal.

“It’s still a little bit above average that what we would normally do during the week, but from this previous week compared to the week before that, it’s definitely gone down a little bit,” he said.

Despite changes in shopping patterns at other grocery stores, many shoppers continue to make daily trips to the small neighborhood market.

Although other markets in the area such as Milwaukee Public Market, Mequon Public Market and Glorioso’s Italian Market have temporarily closed due to COVID-19, Groppi’s plans to stay open as long as possible and continue being an essential resource for the surrounding community.

“Especially for the elderly and people having a hard time getting around town, instead of having to find a ride down to one of the big stores– if they can just walk over here– I think it’s awesome that we can help people out like that and I know they really appreciate us staying open,” said Bruesewitz.

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Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

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