Each year, independent retailers are forced to respond to a number of unforeseen events. Extreme weather conditions such as blizzards, flooding, tornadoes or hurricanes force significant changes to the daily routine. Sometimes unexpected circumstances are positive but still stress the operation – local sports teams winning their way into the playoffs or a surprise lengthy streak of warm and sunny days.

For each of these circumstances, independents know the playbook. They know what to do because in many cases they have faced these scenarios before. Our present predicament seems very different. The spread of COVID-19 has cast a long shadow across all business sectors.

How independent supermarkets — how all supermarkets — respond in the coming days and weeks will be critical.

This is the time for independents to be at their best, exhibiting the qualities and the characteristics the competition cannot. The response should reflect the types of actions that represent the best of independents – nimble, decisive measures taken in a confident manner. 

The trust that each retailer has engendered within its community and customers is on full display during times of crisis. Now is not a time to shrink back and wait for others to lead. It’s time to add a chapter to the independent playbook.

Armed with the correct information, independent retailers can become a trusted and safe place within the community for customers to purchase family needs as they ride out this crisis. The best market leaders are those who are most informed about the needs of their customers. Information, and the dissemination of the right information, is paramount during times of uncertainty. 

Independent retailers should look to their local government health officials for guidance and direction; while television coverage is important, it cannot replace accurate information from actual health experts and officials. In addition, associations that best represent our industry – National Grocers Association, Food Industry Association, Produce Marketing Association and Independent Grocers Alliance, to name just a few – can provide critical guidance in times of retail uncertainty.

Once the right information is attained, the dissemination of it will naturally fall to the employees on the floor. 

It is essential that owners “coach up” their produce managers so that they are able to calmly and confidently speak to customer concerns about food safety and the supply chain.

Independents must focus on two aspects of trust and safety – practices that consumers can see, and procedures that are hidden behind the scenes. Both are important. The first is a visual that creates a sense of reassurance and confidence in customers that the food they are buying is safe. While there is no current information that links COVID-19 to food, a heightened awareness of food safety surrounds any outbreak. 

Retailers that demonstrate a strict adherence to food safety through proper handling techniques while on the floor (think gloves), sanitation stations at the entrance or throughout the store and physical evidence of cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces (cashiers and check stands, continual cart and basket cleaning, sanitizing shelf space) will inspire confidence and trust with customers.

The second aspect of trust and safety reflects the integrity of a retailer – that what happens in the front of the customer is also what is happening in places outside the customer’s view. Restrooms and backrooms must be meticulously cleaned, organized and sanitized. 

Such diligence should also apply to perishable prep rooms and coolers. The same message that is being sent to customers walking the sales floor must also be reflected to employees – this is a serious situation that requires our full attention to ensure the health and wellbeing of our customers and our employees.

The same characteristics that helped independent retailers establish themselves as quality-driven, trustworthy centers of community within the food space should be on full display to project a sense of “We got this” within their geographies. 

An industry research poll conducted March 12 found that 20% of consumers were moving away from fresh produce in favor of frozen, and over 50% of those who were changing their produce purchasing behaviors said they were concerned about bulk produce and exposure to those who might be sick – even though there is no evidence to date that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food. On the flip side, 14% of respondents indicated that they were going to increase their fresh consumption with an eye toward warding off sickness.

In an atmosphere of confusion and anxiety, independents can best tap into their wells of community trust and spread a message of confidence. Never diminish the power of suggestion when it comes to Independent supermarkets – if a consumer sees just how proactive a market is, observing the steps being taken by store employees, those actions will resonate and remain with customers. They may in turn encourage customers to take appropriate action in their own corners of the world.

As I near the 50-year mark in this business, I thought I had seen it all. Alar scares, red grape debacles, blizzards and tornadoes. The industry has lived through, and in some cases is still dealing with, cantaloupe, spinach and romaine issues. Our current challenge is new for me, too. I sure didn’t see this one coming.

But this I know, my friends: if independent supermarkets put transparency and customer care at the heart of their operation, and they stay the course when it comes to quality of product and service, then they will have done all they can to help shepherd their customers through these challenging days.


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