Business & Economy

Vermont supermarkets toil to restock shelves and separate patrons

Chains such as Price Chopper and Market 32 (pictured here in Brattleboro) are installing signs encouraging patrons to stay 6 feet apart. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

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Vermont supermarkets are working overtime to simultaneously restock shelves depleted by the threat of coronavirus and separate patrons still acclimating to the call to stay 6 feet apart.

The state’s three largest chains are seeking more workers to meet record demand while adding physical-distancing signs, Plexiglas checkout-counter shields and special hours for seniors and shoppers at higher risk.

“Things are changing on a daily basis,” says Mona Golub, spokeswoman for the Golub Corp. that runs 15 Price Chopper and Market 32 stores in the state. “We’re adjusting our business based on the most urgent needs.”

Unprecedented sales — the Hannaford chain’s 17 Vermont locations report business has risen by more than 50% — are challenging staffs. Stores statewide are advertising for help. But with a Middlebury employee of the 19-supermarket Shaw’s chain recently diagnosed with coronavirus, others are questioning whether or how they want to work.

Unionized employees at Burlington’s City Market have suggested “hazard pay” at time and a half of their regular rate. Management, for its part, just agreed to “an appreciation bonus” of $120 per 40-hour workweek until at least May 2.

Floor markers (pictured here at Brattleboro’s Market 32) encourage shoppers to stay 6 feet apart at checkout lanes. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“There is no doubt that these are trying times and we’re hopeful that we can continue to work together as we navigate changes to operations and our evolving role as a community resource,” City Market general manager John Tashiro says in a statement on the store’s website.

Supermarket operators, seeing that hoarding only sparks more, are restricting purchases of certain sanitary items and reassuring consumers they’re replenishing everything else as quickly as possible.

“The food supply is not in jeopardy, despite coverage of empty toilet paper shelves,” Golub says. “It’s important for us to recognize we share common needs and there’s plenty to go around.”

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Stores are having the most trouble restocking paper products and specialty cleaning supplies such as disinfecting wipes, although they’re pointing customers to other options.

“There’s plenty of soap,” Golub says, “and most of us have access to a faucet.”

Supermarkets are sanitizing their own checkout counters and shopping baskets and carts as well as taking other preventative steps.

Vermont supermarkets are restricting individual purchases of certain sanitary items. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Stop by the Brattleboro Food Co-op the first of March and you could scoop anything and everything from the bulk bins, hand cash and a reusable tote to a clerk and offer thanks with a fist bump or hug. Visit any morning today, however, and you’ll have to call and order in advance for curbside pickup. Wait until afternoon and you and 29 other customers at a time can buy prewrapped products, pay by credit card, pack up in an untouched paper bag and wave to staffers behind acrylic screens.

“The goal is protecting both shoppers and staff,” co-op general manager Sabine Rhyne says. “We’re adjusting in the moment to this new normal and people are understanding and following the rules pretty well.”

Vermont co-op managers, many who are communicating with each other daily, say it’s easier for independent stores to implement ideas on the fly.

“We can make changes a lot more quickly as a single operation than a corporate store can,” Rhyne says.

But while chain supermarkets report booming business, smaller ones say revenue is down because they’ve had to reduce shopping hours to give staff a chance to recuperate and restock.

Chains such as Price Chopper and Market 32 (pictured here in Brattleboro) are installing signs encouraging patrons to stay 6 feet apart. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“We can’t move as much product the way we’re set up now,” Rhyne says. “Then again, we’re still open and meeting people’s needs.”

Many supermarkets are promoting special hours for seniors and other shoppers at higher risk — Shaw’s is open exclusively to them from 7 to 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; Hannaford from 6 to 7 a.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; and Price Chopper and Market 32 from 6 to 7 a.m. daily — while others are pushing online ordering and curbside pickup or delivery.

The Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, for its part, is featuring resource guides for store owners and consumers on its website.

“It’s been trial and error, but it’s clear we’re doing the right thing,” Rhyne says. “We’ve had so much love and support from customers about how we’re trying to meet their needs.”

A sign at Brattleboro’s Market 32 encourages shoppers to wash their hands. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

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