Adapting to a New Normal

“We’re doing the best we can with our new normal”, the cashier replied from behind her face mask as I quickly bagged my groceries. I had asked her how busy the day had been and how she was holding up, an attempt to extend some words of compassion from behind my masked face. We exchanged a few funny anecdotes about working from home experiences – dogs barking in the background of conference calls and employees wearing professional tops with pajama pant bottoms on video conferences. As I finished paying and began pushing my cart towards the door, I thanked the cashier and left her with my newly acquired sendoff – “Stay safe and healthy”.

There’s no question that for shoppers and store employees alike, the outbreak of COVID-19 has launched us into an unprecedented way of life, changing the manner in which we interact and approach even the most mundane tasks. In a study we launched 2 weeks ago looking at how Americans are dealing with the pandemic, we found that 57% indicated immediate, emotionally-driven concern about their ability to purchase the products they need, and 40% indicated similar concerns about having enough food to eat [see chart below for details]. As non-essential services are halted, shopping centers shutter their doors, delivery service availability becomes a game of chance, and restaurants are forced to either close or offer curb-side pickup, keeping food supplies fresh and flowing has become more important than ever. Grocery stores remain open and have become increasingly vital resources for communities across the nation.


Delivering a Positive Customer Journey Amidst a Pandemic

As the reality of the threat of the virus grew and stores found it difficult to keep up with demand, a few grocery chains decided to implement special shopping hours for those most vulnerable – the elderly or immuno-compromised. Others adjusted their store hours to allow for re-stocking and deep cleaning. Among these were Trader Joe’s and Wegmans, two grocery chains that led the supermarket category in the 2019 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report, touted as being leaders in providing “strong and friendly customer service”. But how would these chains, and many others facing the same set of circumstances, keep up with buyer demand and ensure the health and safety of shoppers and employees alike while continuing to deliver elevated customer experiences?

Here are personal notes from my shopping experiences this week along with measures that grocers are taking to keep the customer experience at the forefront of their efforts in a time of crisis:

1. Making the health and safety of all customers the top priority

Various grocery stores, including Stop & Shop and Fareway, have been emphasizing their commitment to treating all shoppers fairly and providing the best experience possible. For seniors and those with disabilities, designated shopping times have been established at the start of each day to allow them to stock up on essentials without having to worry about item availability and store crowding. In various stores in my area, there are 6-foot-spaced markings outside the store and in front of registers indicating where shoppers should stand while waiting on lines, Plexiglas shields for cashiers, and a cap on how many shoppers can be in-store simultaneously to ensure appropriate distancing is maintained.

2. Instilling a sense of trust by communicating commitment to safety

On the Trader Joe’s website, the company states that they are “closely monitoring the situation, and regularly providing all of our stores and Crew Members with the most up-to-date safety guidance, as recommended by the CDC and other health officials”. Employees at registers have opportunities to regularly wash their hands during their shifts and are given necessary resources to practice good hygiene. Additionally, the website notes that “stores have increased the frequency of cleanings”.

On a trip to my local Trader Joe’s, sanitizing wipes were available at the front door and shoppers were encouraged to wipe cart surfaces down before entry. A sign was affixed to a pole outside of the store stating that only paper bags would be used for bagging, to avoid potential virus transfer via reusable bags. Stores that typically feature food/beverage samples, like Trader Joe’s and Costco, have suspended those offerings to maintain high sanitation standards.

3. Supporting & alleviating the strain for employees

In 2018, Glassdoor named Wegmans as one of the best places to work in the US, a reflection of the effort the company puts into making sure that employees are treated with just as much respect and care as customers. As the website states, “For more than 100 years, we have operated under the premise that we can only achieve our goals if we first meet the needs of our people”. During the months of March and April, employees are being given a $2-an-hour increase in pay and the company has provided more flexibility in paid-time-off plans to accommodate illness and family care. Employees who are more vulnerable are being given different roles that reduce their exposure to the public.

ShopRite recently announced that it will also be providing a $2 increase to hourly rates and an enhanced sick leave and attendance policy. Grocery workers are considered essential employees, on the front lines every day, leaving their loved ones and risking exposure to make sure that communities remain fed. Companies that understand the importance of employee satisfaction, health and safety, and how it correlates with positive customer experiences, recognize this challenge and are acting accordingly to provide support.

4. Actually succeeding in alleviating the strain on employees can be a differentiator

A number of companies have faced struggles in effectively reducing the burden on workers and maintaining high levels of employee satisfaction as consumer demand for food forces employees to work harder and longer hours while risking their health.

Whole Foods, for example, has taken measures to make stores safer for both shoppers and employees alike, providing disinfecting wipes and limiting the number of people inside stores at the same time. However, employees feel that the company has not done enough to provide hazard pay, paid sick leave for anyone showing signs of illness, expanded healthcare coverage for all employees, and to establish thorough sanitation measures. Workers across the US staged a “sickout” on March 31st, 2020, demanding these changes be put in place.

Similar strikes have been organized by employees of grocery delivery service Instacart and e-commerce giant Amazon. The result: though these companies are making huge strides to keep customers fed, the bad press they are getting related to the employee experience will inevitably leave its mark on customers’ perception of their brands.

5. Maintaining a personal, human touch in an otherwise scary world

Anyone who has ever stepped foot in a Trader Joe’s retail store knows to expect friendly and cheerful exchanges when interacting with employees. As their website states, employees pride themselves on “generally being nice, helpful, and well informed”. My trip this week was no exception. An employee at the front door regulating the flow of customers was quick to engage in conversation about anything – the weather, how long the line was over the weekend, even the flock of squawking birds overhead – which was a welcome distraction to the masked and gloved line of people building behind me. Upon entry, he curtsied and extended an arm as if to say “Welcome”. Once inside, employees stocking shelves were quick to smile and offer assistance if needed. And as I neared the exit door, two employees standing at a register turned and thanked me before wishing me a safe trip home. I walked to my car relaxed, having seen employees upholding safety precautions while keeping the atmosphere as “business as usual” as possible. At a time when social distancing has become the norm, personal connection and humor go a long way in alleviating tension.

6. Providing alternate means to accessing groceries beyond in-store shopping

As the number of virus cases continues to rise and the pandemic reaches states far flung from metropolitan areas, consumers across generations look for ways to get food while self-isolating as best as possible. Enter the convenience of contactless grocery deliveries and curbside pickup services.

Intelligence firm Apptopia reports that comparing the average daily downloads in February 2020 to March 15th, 2020, “Instacart, Walmart Grocery, and Shipt have seen their daily downloads surge by 218%, 160% and 124%, respectively”. To keep up with the surging demand, grocers and delivery services have hired thousands of new employees and have worked with suppliers to prioritize high-demand products.

While landing a coveted pickup or delivery slot can be challenging, companies that can provide a safer means for accessing crucial food and home products are transforming the shopping experience.

7. Looking to the future, the definition of table stakes is changing

A 2009 study by health psychology researcher Phillippa Lally found that, on average, it takes 66 days before a new behavior becomes automatic. If we apply that framework to the newly-formed behaviors that shoppers have been forced to embrace during this pandemic – ordering groceries, prescriptions, and even alcohol online for delivery or pickup (even from stores that have recently launched these services), buying pre-packaged bulk foods (like previously scoop-able granola or nuts), using disinfecting wipes provided by stores, maintaining recommended feet apart from other shoppers, and adjusting to purchase limits on high-demand products – then sometime in May 2020, we may all be used to this “new normal” way of living and shopping.

How companies are able to adapt to this “new” way of shopping and living in the longer term may present opportunities for providing outstanding customer experiences.

Standing Out from the Crowd

With scientists forecasting that our new way of isolated life might last weeks, if not months longer, as COVID-19 spreads across the US, grocers and shoppers will likely continue to face the same challenges for quite some time. Those companies that recognize that keeping shelves stocked is just as important as keeping customers and employees feeling safe, informed, in touch, and cared for will truly differentiate themselves during this time of crisis.

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