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“That’s all been replaced by this thing nobody was prepared for, which was ‘get out there and protect,’” Potrikus said.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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Hart’s the latest casualty in the grocery wars

Perhaps unsurprisingly in an era of  seismic shifts in the world of food markets, Hart’s Local Grocers announced this week that it will shut its doors by the end of the month, less than five years after the independent grocery store opened.

harts-positive-color_cmykprintHart’s founder Glenn Kellogg announced the closure Monday by way of Facebook and did not return a call for additional comment. The note said streamlining the store’s operations last year created the most profitable year in the store’s history, but declining sales made it impossible to continue.

“Looking to the past and projecting on the future, we imagined a livable neighborhood with daily services for its residents. We think we built a piece of that vision,” the post read. Certainly, with condominiums and new luxury apartment steps from the store, a growing population of downtown residents was available to patronize the store, even on foot. Additional residents will be coming to mixed-income apartments being built now on land reclaimed by filling in an adjacent section of Inner Loop.

But gaining potential customers and shaping their shopping habits in time to keep the store afloat apparently wasn’t to be.

“In general, retail downtown in that area, it’s just a little difficult,” said John Gonzalez, one of the co-owners of 66-year-old Hegedorn’s Market in Webster. “They had a lot of really great products and provided good service to the customer. It was a very cool place,” he said.

It takes more than a few years to establish a brand and change consumer patterns, he said, which in Rochester are heavily geared toward driving to Wegmans for groceries. “It’s always hard to compete with Wegmans; they’re always good at what they do,” he said.

During Hart’s brief lifetime, major shifts in the way groceries are bought and sold have made it more difficult for small independents and giant chain stores alike to stay in business.

Hart’s had made much of its delivery service, which was a rarity in this market when the store opened in 2014 and when the service was offered in early 2015. The original Hart’s, another grocery store that operated in Rochester and closed many years ago, delivered groceries by wagon, so a wagon became the logo of the present-day store.

The quaint child’s wagon, however, ended up going head-to-head with the Uber-ization of grocery shopping.

In the last few years, entire businesses have sprung up to manage online ordering and home delivery. Walmart and Wegmans began offering drive-up service for groceries and other items ordered online. In the last year, Wegmans and Target both began home delivery, too, through a phone app.

Hegedorn’s Gonzalez said his store is working with a local company to develop online ordering for home delivery. Hegedorn’s has offered home delivery for some time, and appears to be the only market in the area offering the throwback service of having baggers  wheel your groceries to your car.

Hart’s lifetime also has included expansion of discount chains such as Dollar General and Aldi across the country, with the Rochester market being no exception.

“So many more retailers today are selling groceries than they were a decade ago. That makes it more difficult for everyone,” Gonzalez said.

Retail game-changer Amazon bought Whole Foods, bringing its delivery model to a higher-end grocer and offering discounts to shoppers who are members of Amazon Prime. A Whole Foods has been proposed for the Rochester area, but is held up in legal disagreements.

Grocery stores much larger than Hart’s have struggled to stay upright. Tops, based in the Buffalo area, and the parent company of Winn-Dixie, in the South, have both filed for bankruptcy reorganization. Tops closed five stores in the Rochester area last year to streamline its operation.

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Signage possible sticking point for ALDI in former Tops location

Trying to keep a clock tower sign in keeping with neighborhood aesthetics, the city Zoning Board of Appeals Thursday denied ALDI’s proposed signage for the store it plans to open in the former Tops grocery store at North Winton and Blossom roads.

That could be an issue for the project, as a representative of the proposed ALDI grocery store at North Winton and Blossom roads suggested in a hearing earlier Thursday that if there are too many roadblocks, the company might change its mind about redeveloping the site.

The ZBA did,  however, approve signs ALDI proposed for the building itself and for entrance and exit indicators.

ALDI had proposed flat, internally lit sign on the clock tower near the store, instead of the individual raised and lit letters that were featured there when building contained a Tops store.

Steve Cleason, from APD Engineering & Architecture, which handles ALDI’s prototype buildings, said the company would have a problem with altering the look of its signage, which they believe helps customers find their stores.

“This is a big aspect of who they are,” Cleason told the board. He said he believed he would have a hard time convincing ALDI to use the individual raised letter style, known as channel style. By the end of the hearing, though, he said he might be able to work out a compromise if the raised lettering can also include a logo, the way Tops had it.

ALDI had proposed a new store several years ago on the northwest corner of the intersection, but withdrew in late 2017 after extensive opposition to redeveloping the property that way. But later in the year, Tops closed its store at 175 North Winton Road, which is nearby.

The site plan shows ALDI making use of 20,288 square feet of the existing grocery store, on the right side. It was unclear what would happen with the remaining 24,000 square feet of the building. A new loading dock would also be built.

Cleason said ALDI is planning to open a store in six months, but suggested the project is not carved in stone.

“Sometimes one site becomes a little more difficult than they can take,” Cleason said.

The zoning board approved an internally lit, 10-by-12-foot sign on the building itself, and entrance and exit signs that will feature the ALDI logo. Each kind of sign was either larger or smaller than normally allowed.

 ALDI officials prefer an entire sign to just the company's letters.
ALDI officials prefer an entire sign to just the company’s letters.

Neighborhood representatives spoke in favor of the project, but lamented that the clock tower signage will not match the same way it did when Tops’ red lettering was there. CVS uses a different font, but its sign also features red lettering.  The sign is on CVS’ parcel.

ALDI had proposed a flat sign with its trademark white letters and light blue logo on a darker blue background, edged in orange.

Normally, Cleason said, the company requests monument signs, meaning substantial raised signs with a heavy base, often standing at the edge of the property. “This was a balance. We’re trying to make it work,” he said of the “cabinet” style sign the company had proposed within the clock tower.

“Nope, it’s not going to happen,” said board member Tyrone Bryant. “We’re not going to have a monument.”  Vice-chairman Joseph O’Donnell said he had worked extensively with the neighborhood association several years ago to reach agreement on the clock tower.

ALDI now has the option of requesting a building permit for the sign that includes the raised lettering style, or ask for a new hearing on a different proposal.

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Aldi store planned for former Tops gets hearing

A public hearing by Rochester city officials Thursday morning will take up a signage issue associated with Aldi moving into the former Tops store at 175 Winton Road.

The Zoning Board Appeals hearing agenda says attached and stand-alone signs for the proposed grocery store don’t conform with existing codes, but details on the signage were not available.

An Aldi spokewoman said the company had no information to share right now about the store, which appears to be under renovation. The hearing is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Thursday, in City Council Chambers Room 302A, City Hall.

At 44,000 square feet, the Winton Road space is more than double the size of a typical Aldi store, and apparently Aldi plans to use just part of the space.

The store is across Blossom Road from another North Winton Village location where Aldi had proposed building a 17,000-square-foot store in  2015. But Aldi scrapped the plans in December 2017 after a lawsuit was filed and neighborhood opposition developed to the building plans for the site, the former home of Jim’s Restaurant.

The company currently has 10 stores in Monroe County, including one at 714 Latta Road in Greece that is closed for renovation but expected to reopen March 1, according to the Aldi website.

Aldi also operates stores in Medina, Orleans County; Batavia, Genesee County; Geneseo, Livingston County, and in the Ontario County locations of Victor and Canandaigua.

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Tops adds furloughed workers to Check Out Hunger effort

Tops stores will start collecting donations for Foodlink with the Check Out Hunger campaign starting on Sunday.

And this year the store will also donate meals to furloughed federal workers.

More than 150 Tops stores in three states will participate, adding to the nearly $4 million Tops has raised for Foodlink and other regional food banks since 2006.

Customers have the option of addition $2, $3 or $5 to their grocery bills when they check out.

“Check Out Hunger is a vital source of funds for Foodlink, which – alongside hundreds of community partners and member agencies – serves thousands of food-insecure individuals every day,” said Julia Tedesco, President & CEO of Foodlink. “We’re grateful to be part of such a giving community, and thankful to Tops for providing this opportunity for shoppers to donate.”

Because of the government shutdown, Tops is also planning to donate toward meals for local furloughed workers every time a Check Out Hunger donation of $2 or more is made.

“Eradicating hunger and assisting our fellow neighbors in need is part of Tops’ core mission so supporting this effort on an annual basis is something that we gladly stand behind,” said Frank Curci, chairman of the board, and chief executive officer for Tops Friendly Markets.

The campaign lasts through Feb. 16.

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Tops to emerge from bankruptcy soon

After a restructuring that included closing three supermarkets in the Rochester area, Tops Markets is planning to emerge from bankruptcy soon.

The US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York gave the company’s reorganization plans its approval on Thursday.

“Through this process, we have accomplished several key objectives, including significantly reducing our debt, creating a viable cost structure and efficiently optimizing our store portfolio,” said Frank Curci, CEO of Tops. “Importantly, we provided an opportunity for employment to every associate who was interested and impacted by store closings at other nearby stores. Our restructuring will create an even more exceptional shopping experience for our customers and assure that we will continue to serve our communities like no one else can.”

The supermarket chain, based in Williamsville, Erie County, filed for bankruptcy reorganization in February. As part of its attempt to cut costs and become more profitable, Tops closed its stores on North Winton Road and on Lake Avenue in Rochester, and on Pittsford-Palmyra Road in Perinton. It also closed stores in Lyons, Wayne County, and Geneva, Ontario County.

Tops continues to operate 159 stores, with five additional franchisee stores, in Upstate New York, northern Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

In a statement, Curci also thanked Tops workers, customers, and supplies for their support during the reorganization.

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Check Out Hunger campaign begins this weekend

Thirty Rochester-area Tops Friendly Markets stores will participate in this winter’s Check Out Hunger campaign, benefiting Foodlink Inc.’s anti-hunger programs.

The campaign, which runs from Jan. 28 through Feb. 17, allows shoppers to make a small donation at the cash register. Shoppers can round up their bill or make donations of $2, $3 or $5 to help provide food for individuals living in Foodlink’s 10-county region.

“Tops has been a tremendous supporter of Foodlink for years and we’re excited to kick off another Check Out Hunger campaign with them,” Heather Newton, Foodlink’s director of development and community engagement, said in a statement. “Customers who donate can be assured that these funds are going to programs designed to help end hunger and lift up thousands of families who are struggling to make ends meet.”

Other local grocers have joined the Check Out Hunger campaign, including Abundance Cooperative Market, Hegedorns and Lori’s Natural Foods, among others. In addition, Knucklehead Craft Brewing in Webster is pledging to donate $1 for every Kathy’s Kreme Ale sold at the brewery during the campaign.

Since 2006, Tops has raised more than $3.6 million through the Check Out Hunger campaign.

“At Tops, we believe in eradicating hunger and assisting our fellow neighbors in need, and so supporting this effort on an annual basis is something that we gladly stand behind,” said Tops chairman and CEO Frank Curci.

Foodlink annually helps feed more than 200,000. Last year the organization distributed 17.4 million pounds of food.

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