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Essential retailers take on ever-changing rules, role during pandemic

What worked last week doesn’t necessarily work this week. 

That’s pretty much what essential retail businesses are dealing with as they carry on in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just a few days ago, many companies were voluntarily providing masks, gloves and sanitizers to their frontline workers. This week a new executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo requires them to do so and requires employees facing the public to wear them — something that has been hit-and-miss up to now. 

“It’s a new world for retailers; it’s a new world for customers,” said Ted Potrikus, president and CEO of the Retail Council of New York State. Retailers have traditionally trained and operated in a “get out there and sell” mentality, he said.



“That’s all been replaced by this thing nobody was prepared for, which was ‘get out there and protect,’” Potrikus said.

Now, Potrikus said, “It’s get your two things and get out. That is so upside down in the world of retail.”  

Kathy Sautter, public and media relations manager at Tops Friendly Markets, said a crisis team now meets daily to review COVID-19 news, and then updates the Buffalo-based chain’s 162 stores by phone and email about changes. Wegmans Food Markets Inc. has a similar team, communicating with 50,000 employees by sharing videos and messages on its internal website. 

New ways to help customers maintain distance from each other are one example of those changes. 

Stores that once welcomed all the people they could safely fit into their aisles are now cutting back to a fraction of their capacity and cautioning customers to stay 6 feet apart. Trader Joe’s in Pittsford was among the first locally to limit the number of customers in the store. Tops president John Persons said in a video to consumers that those stores are removing free-standing racks and tables so there will be more room to practice social distancing. 

Nearly all essential stores, such as grocery stores, big box retailers like Walmart and Target, and home improvement stores have:

  • Cut back hours to allow for more clearing and restocking; 
  • Introduced additional cleaning routines;
  • Added or beefed up curbside purchases or delivery;
  • Offered paid sick leave;
  • Upped pay and/or provided bonuses to entice employees to remain on the job;
  • Publicized that they’re hiring; and
  • Included information on their websites about what they’re doing to keep customers and staff safe. 

Many retailers have also donated money and goods to help those affected by the pandemic and the economic hardships it is causing.

Inside their stores, both Tops and Wegmans have added Plexiglas barriers at checkouts to minimize the swapping of germs between clerks and customers. McDonald’s Corp. has been adding them to drive-thru windows.

 Wegmans announced this week that it will start giving employees wellness checks before they begin their shifts. 

Anyone exhibiting symptoms or with a temperature of 100 degrees or higher, will be asked to go home (with pay) and contact their medical provider. Anyone who doesn’t have a doctor can take advantage of a telemedicine option for the care they need,” read a Facebook post Wegmans made on Monday.

Walmart has said it is taking the temperature of employees when they come to work. Tops has also instituted wellness checks. 

All these efforts have not gone on without a few hiccups. Earlier this month employees walked off the job at Amazon, Whole Foods, Family Dollar, Walmart, McDonald’s and other retail workplaces to protest what they considered insufficient health protections. 

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union has been holding Amazon’s feet to the fire after it fired the worker who led the walkout, and after internal documents revealed top-level executives were hoping to smear him in an attempt to stifle unionization. The executive who proposed the campaign has since apologized for allowing emotion to shape his statements.  

“I’m sure some brands have made missteps along the way,” Potrikus said, “No store … has the latitude anymore to just ignore what their customers and what their workers are saying. They have to be responsive in a very careful way.”

He noted that the New York Attorney General and State Department of Labor are both enforcing related laws.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also recently issued reminders to employers that state and federal laws protect whistleblowers against retaliation. 

For the most part, though, stores are running as quickly as they can to keep up with the demands the pandemic is placing on them. That includes creating new jobs or designating new responsibilities for existing employees. 

Tops’ Sautter said, “Each store has an associate whose only job is to clean and sanitize the front end registers, check stands, conveyor belts, customer service desks, restrooms, point of sale devices and other frequently touched surfaces most accessed by customers on a continual basis during operating hours.”

Understandably, some employees have been reluctant to continue exposing themselves to potential danger. Sautter said some Tops employees have opted to take leave. Wegmans says it has allowed workers who are most vulnerable to take positions elsewhere in the company that are not public-facing.

“Our COVID-19 job-protected voluntary leave gives employees the opportunity to take time off unpaid if they are uncomfortable being at work,” said Laura Camera, a spokeswoman at Wegmans. “While we do have employees taking advantage of this leave, we work very hard to maintain a healthy and safe work environment for our people.”

Meanwhile, the employees who remain on the job continue to restock shelves that are rapidly emptied by nervous consumers. 

“Because this is a national as well as international pandemic, all retailers are in the same predicament when it comes to finding product to meet the demand, which means an increased demand on our vendors,” Sautter said. “Many manufacturers and suppliers of hand sanitizers, soaps and cleaners do not have much available product to ship at this time. We are working with all of the affected supplier partners on an hourly basis in an effort to re-fill our supply chain and our stores.”

Camera added, “While the unexpected increase in demand has challenged the supply chain, we’re seeing it start to equal out, and are confident it will stabilize as long as we all prioritize our needs. …  Although we may not have every variety available, we are working hard to give our customers options in each category. We continue to receive shipments to our stores every day.”

Potrikus credited Empire State Development with taking steps that prevented worse disruptions of the supply chain. Anticipating potential problems, ESD was having conversations with retailers before the pandemic really hit, and early on declared warehouse, fulfillment and shipping operations were essential businesses, he said, so they could continue operating. 

“The biggest impediment to the supply chain are the people who go in and buy 16 cases of toilet paper in one run,” Potrikus said. 

Despite some snags, Potrikus said, retailers have quickly pivoted in their new roles.

“You’ve had businesses go from two months ago where their biggest concern was how do you spell these things. And suddenly they have to become public health officials,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly they’ve adapted to that new role.”

[email protected] / (585) 363-7275 



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