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Retailers and grocers thrown into new, unexpected challenges as coronavirus spreads

a grocery store aisle
Grocery clerks are finding themselves on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the few businesses allowed to operate under Michigan's "stay at home" order.

Even during the middle of a pandemic, people need food to eat. That’s why grocery stores are one of the businesses still allowed to operate under the state's "stay at home" order. Some stores have carved out special shopping hours for seniors and those most at risk of complications from COVID-19. But that still puts store workers on the front lines of the outbreak.

Like large chain grocery stores, small local stores are also struggling to meet demand. Chris Faulkner is a manager at Foods for Living in East Lansing. He said there was a slow but steady increase in customers up until last week.

“Last week, it just all blew up. It was probably what I would say in 41 years, it’s the most intense week of my retail sales life,” Faulkner said.

That was when the store started to sell out of certain items. While small grocery stores like his are still stocked with produce,  specific items like toilet paper and sanitation products are sold out. The reason why has to do with how grocery stores order their stock. 

Faulkner said the product pipeline for grocers is approximately two weeks long. Stores sign a contract with vendors to buy a designated number of items in advance. What happened two weeks ago was that demand increased to a level where there was no cushion in that pipeline.

“When people increase the demand that high, that two week cushion disappears or gets compressed to four days. So that’s when you start to see shortages,” Faulkner explained. “They can’t make up for that huge gap.”

Meegan Holland is Vice President of Communications and Marketing with the Michigan Retailers Association. Holland also said that stores across the state have increased cleaning time. That's why some have shortened their shopping hours. 

To stay safe while at the grocery store, Holland urged customers to only touch what they want and to have a game plan before they enter the store. 

“The main point is get organized before you go. Enter the store with wipes. Buy enough for two weeks and then leave. Don’t bring your family. Don't expose yourself or grocery workers unnecessarily,” Holland said.

To cope with the increase in product demand and heightened risk of being in public spaces, Holland said some stores have started implementing additional rules such as secured entrances to limit overcrowded stores. If an employee gets sick, Holland said that grocery stores are taking extra steps to clean the space. And “if a store has to completely shut down to disinfect, they’ll do it.”

While grocery stores are not designed to handle infectious diseases, Faulkner said staff at Food For Living are working around the clock to clean the store in rotations. But the increase in stressful work conditions comes with a mental and physical toll on the workers. 

“They’re not trained for this, and they're not hospital workers, and they’re not first responders. You know, they’re artists, they’re musicians, and they’re people that do other things," Faulkner said as he choked up. "And here they are in this position, and it’s remarkable how it brings out the best in people.”

This post was written by Stateside assistant producer Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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