At Longo’s grocery stores in Southern Ontario, there are no food samples handed out; some tables and chairs have been removed from in-store eating areas to enforce physical distancing; and the olives that used to sit in a self-serve bar are only sold in packages.
Staff are wiping down shopping carts and countertops more often. And as online-delivery orders through its Grocery Gateway service surge, the company is moving to payment online-only rather than offering card readers at the door. Longo’s is just one of many food retailers balancing continued service with managing risks around the new coronavirus.
“We have to take care of our guests and of our team,” said president and CEO Anthony Longo. He echoed the sentiment expressed by Sobeys parent company CEO Michael Medline on Thursday, that grocery stores are an essential service, and that retailers are trying to reassure the public that stores will remain open and stocked.
In an e-mail to customers on Friday, Loblaw Co.s Ltd. executive chairman Galen Weston said the company has assigned a team to address the need to restock high-demand items quickly.
This week there were long lineups to get into some grocery stores and at checkouts. Retailers say they are monitoring crowding in stores.
“If [store managers] believe that it’s getting too crowded and uncomfortable for people, we have procedures in place to put people at the front to control traffic,” Mr. Longo said. “We haven’t had to institute that yet, but we’re prepared to do that.”
But while demand is up, buying habits are also changing. “In spite of our precautions, we know some people are still feeling anxious about public spaces,” Mr. Weston wrote, adding that the company’s click-and-collect service would be dropping its usual pickup fees, and that the price of items for home delivery would be reduced.
Online grocery delivery service Instacart confirmed that sales have increased 10 times since the beginning of March across North America. The company did not share details specific to Canada, where it delivers from stores including Loblaw banners and Walmart Canada.
Last week, Instacart announced customers could ask for orders to be left at the door instead of delivered in person, and use of the feature has increased in recent days. Grocery Gateway has seen existing customers buying more items per order, and a boost in new customers. And while delivery staff usually bring orders into people’s homes upon request, Mr. Longo said they have been advised they can leave orders with the customer at the doorstep.
The surge in demand at grocery retailers signifies that people are hunkering down, which has implications for the restaurant industry as consumers work from home and limit outings.
Second Cup said its coffee shops in malls and office buildings have seen a drop in traffic. The company is increasing its cleaning schedule from once every two hours to once an hour, and on Friday announced it has removed self-serve stations, instructing servers to add items such as milk or sugar to beverages at the counter. Second Cup has also stopped providing washable dishware such as ceramic cups or metal cutlery for in-store orders. The chain is encouraging customers to use drive-throughs where available, and is offering a 20-per-cent discount for those who use mobile ordering and payment.
SIR Corp., which operates 60 restaurants in Canada including the Jack Astor’s chain, said Friday that in addition to increased cleaning procedures, it will seat customers at every other table to leave more distance between patrons, effectively reducing the number of people it can serve.
“I’m anticipating the sales are going to be down dramatically, but I’d rather do what’s right for the public,” said CEO Peter Fowler. He confirmed sales have already been affected but declined to quantify the impact.
A number of other food service chains including Tim Hortons, Subway Canada and McDonald’s Canada also confirmed increased cleaning of high-touch areas such as door handles and pin pads. McDonald’s is cleaning self-serve ordering kiosks featuring touch screens more frequently, and has temporarily closed its PlayPlace entertainment areas for children.
MTY Food Group Inc., which owns more than 80 restaurant banners – including food-court regulars such as Tiki-Ming and Jugo Juice; coffee shops such as Country Style, and other restaurants such as Pinkberry and South Street Burger – has also asked franchisees to clean similar high-touch areas more frequently. Subway is not providing trays for in-store dining, and is asking customers to take a new cup for every beverage refill.
Cinema chains are another high-traffic business that serves food – including popcorn and candy people eat with their hands – and are affected by consumers’ changing habits. While other entertainment businesses have shut their doors for now, including sports leagues and cultural organizations such as the National Ballet of Canada, many movie theatres are staying open, for now.
The chains say they are also cleaning more often and are limiting capacity in their theatres to allow people to keep their distance. On Friday, Landmark Cinemas Canada was working to change its online ticketing system to block off every other seat, and Guzzo Cinemas cut the maximum capacity in each auditorium by half, and said that no more than 200 people would be allowed in the same place. Doors, railings and other high-touch areas will be sanitized after every screening, it confirmed.
Cineplex Inc. also reduced its theatre capacity. In an e-mail, spokesperson Sarah Van Lange said that theatres will be open as long as attendance numbers indicate that people “feel safe and comfortable” there, and that the company has communicated to employees that they will not be penalized if they decide to stay home.
“It is something that we are certainly monitoring and are mindful of as a last resort," she wrote, adding that the theatres would close if directed to do so by government.
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