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“That’s all been replaced by this thing nobody was prepared for, which was ‘get out there and protect,’” Potrikus said.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

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As plastic bag ban approaches, some stores ahead of the curve, others merely react

A nickel can be a powerful thing.

Last summer Wegmans conducted a pilot study at two stores to see how customers would react if single-use plastic grocery bags were removed even before a statewide ban goes into effect March 1 in New York. The pilot introduced Wegmans’ new paper bag policy – they now cost 5 cents each with the fee going to charity.

The pilot results showed that most shoppers –  80 percent in the Corning and Ithaca stores –  will go to some lengths to avoid paying a few pennies for something they’ve received free for many, many years.

Then late last month, the Rochester-based grocery store chain stopped using disposable, plastic grocery bags in all of its New York stores, basically starting the plastic bag ban a month early.

“We knew we had a lot to figure out. We wanted to get ahead of it,” said Jason Wadsworth, manager of packaging and sustainability at Wegmans.

Some other organizations in the state also went the early route, including Goodwill stores and the stores and eateries on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology.

RIT’s new ban on single-use plastic went into effect in late January, too, with organizers hoping to divert not just filmy plastic bags (325,000 a year) but also plastic straws (413,500 a year) and coffee stirrers (140,000 a year) from local landfills. Paper and wooden alternatives are available upon request.

“This is something we’re definitely excited about to make a bigger impact environmentally,” said Kory Samuels, executive director of RIT Dining.

Some large retailers, though, are showing no such initiative.

A spokesman for New York Walmart stores responded to questions about the ban by saying the company would follow all local laws, but provided no particulars about how it will do that.

Target had some details about what it will be doing in New York stores: paper bags will be available after the ban starts, and it will continue giving a 5-cent-per-bag rebate to customers who bring in reusable bags for their purchases, as it has done for years.

In the Albany and New York City areas, Target’s paper bags will come with a small fee, in compliance with local rules on disposable bags, a spokeswoman said.

Anticipating the ban, Tops Friendly Markets has offered coupons providing a discount on its reusable bags and introduced Totes for Change, a line of durable grocery bags with original art, which provides a portion of profits to benefit charities.  A Tops spokeswoman, Kathy Sautter, said Totes for Change resulted in $30,000 being donated to charity in 2019.

Tops is waiting for March 1, however, before rolling out other changes, such as charging 5 cents for a paper bag (partial proceeds will go to charity) and abandoning single-use plastic grocery bags, Sautter said.

After the ban starts, the state will still allow some exceptions, such as bags for takeout food. So technically, Wegmans and Tops could continue offering plastic bags in their prepared-food areas, but both companies said they won’t do that.

“We removed plastic bags from our store on (Jan. 27) because we didn’t want there to be that confusion” for customers or employees, Wegmans’ Wadsworth said. “We’ll just get them out of the store and use paper for the Instacart orders and our Meals to Go.”

Both grocery stores said they will continue to accept clean plastic bags for recycling after the ban begins.

Interestingly, when Wegmans did its pilot study in New York, it also looked at the issue in Richmond, Va.

“Just about every state that we’ve been in has talked about plastic bags at one point or another,” Wadsworth said. Wegmans picked Richmond stores for the test because “We wanted to get feedback from a store that didn’t have a ban proposed.” Wadsworth said.

In Virginia, a plastic bag ban has not been a frequent topic of news, discussions and even social media posts like it has in New York during most of 2019. But reusable bag use still shot up there when Wegmans conducted its pilot, though not as high as in New York stores. Reusable/no bag reactions went from 20 percent in Richmond before the pilot to the mid- and high-60s during the pilot.

That might have been predicted. According to Wadsworth, a municipal ban in Germantown, Md., resulted in Wegmans shoppers at the store there relying on reusable bags in the high 60s.

When Wegmans stopped using plastic bags in New York stores late January, the event spurred some social media discussions that seemed to be under the assumption that the ban was Wegmans’ idea, rather than Wegmans reacting to a state ban. Some commenters also charged that Wegmans makes money off the sale of paper bags.

“Our communication obviously wasn’t a hundred percent,” Wadsworth said. “This comes with added expense that we are just making part of the cost of doing business. The 5 cents is clearly just a way to get folks to use reusable bags.”

Since before the end of January, Wegmans has expanded and increased the number of reusable bag displays in its stores. The bags start at 99 cents for a basic bag and rising to several dollars for special bags with thermal linings or interior support. Other retailers charge similar amounts.

Wadsworth said the stores are continuing to offer disposable plastic for bulk purchases, loose vegetables and raw meats and seafood, basically to shield foods and reusable bags from cross contamination, and to prevent food waste.

The store must consider whether the plastic is for convenience or “integral in protecting the product,” Wadsworth said. “If we were to change the package or use no package at all – that will increase food waste as a result of no packaging. That’s one of those things where we have to take a sustainability life-cycle approach,” he said.

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