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Sobeys has installed floor stickers and arrows to help customers stay 2 metres apart and to direct one-way isle traffic to protect against the spread of COVID-19, as seen at the Queensway store in Toronto on April 3, 2020.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

It was a phone call that Luisa Cammisa has made more than once in recent weeks. The Sobeys store operator in Aurora, Ont., had been at work since 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning, but she had to let her husband, Frank, know that she wouldn’t be home for supper.

Ms. Cammisa had received word that Sobeys parent company Empire Co. Ltd. was implementing one-way aisles in its stores. She grabbed some tape and with a few co-workers (and Frank, who turned up to help), began laying down arrows on the floors. In a 52,000-square-foot store, this was not a small job. But she was relieved.

“I’m having conversations with employees that are a little bit nervous about coming to work, having conversations with moms and dads that want to know their daughter or son is going to be safe," Ms. Cammisa said.

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The arrows are part of a number of new measures that Empire has introduced in the past few days and weeks to encourage physical distancing. Grocers across the industry are facing the same issue: As people have been encouraged to stay home to curb the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, grocery e-commerce services have been overwhelmed. That means some people still have to shop in stores – and retailers need to reassure both staff and customers that they are safe there.

“Demand in the grocery stores has not let up,” Empire chief executive officer Michael Medline said in an interview.

At Empire’s stores – which include Sobeys, Freshco, Safeway and other grocery banners – staff will walk around to remind shoppers to give each other space and to follow the arrows. The company has already installed plexiglass barriers at checkouts at its 1,282 grocery stores and 423 pharmacies across Canada, and is installing additional “back shields.”

As the company has navigated the COVID-19 crisis, it has also changed its approach. For example, arbitrary limits on the number of customers allowed in stores aren’t useful for a chain that has store sizes ranging from 2,600 to 76,000 square feet.

“In times of crisis, it’s easy for people to come to one-size-fits-all solutions, and that just doesn’t work,” Mr. Medline said.

So recently, Empire teams have been mapping out store layouts and traffic to calculate the “walkable area” where people move around – not including space for things like shelves, deli cases and cash registers – to determine the ideal spacing. The company decided the standard should be one customer per 160 square feet of walkable area; stores will ask people to wait outside if there are more. Many locations have markings on the ground and traffic cones to show proper distancing for outdoor lineups.

Staff have been wiping down carts and baskets between customers and cleaning areas such as freezer handles more often. At Ms. Cammisa’s store, one employee acts as a “floater” to sub in for cashiers who are now washing their hands every 15 minutes. All this takes more soap and cleaning products. Empire’s procurement teams have been buying more from both existing and new suppliers, as well as from businesses that have had to close.

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“Our cardinal rule is health-care workers get everything first," Mr. Medline said "... If we’re offered something which we think hospitals are having trouble getting, we do not take that supply.”

Two major factors are affecting demand, Mr. Medline said. People are self-isolating and cooking at home more. And secondly, whenever more news emerges about COVID-19, grocery stores see a subsequent surge in traffic.

Retailers and their suppliers have been working to make supply chains more efficient, he said, including using “cross-docking” facilities where goods move between trucks faster and receiving more shipments directly at stores rather than warehouses. Shelves are being restocked, he said.

The crisis has highlighted the urgency of Empire’s plans for e-commerce, set to launch this spring. It has partnered with online grocer Ocado Group PLC of Britain and built two robotic warehouses for automated packing. Its Voilà service will begin tests in the Greater Toronto Area in the next four to six weeks. The company is preparing for much faster growth than it had previously forecast.

“We can’t get it open soon enough,” Mr. Medline said. “... E-commerce – even at capacity right now – is still a tiny sliver of what we would need to feed Canadians.”

At stores, there are no longer days of the week when traffic calms down.

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“This is so taxing on the front-line teams, it’s difficult to do more,” Mr. Medline said. “They can’t work long shifts and overtime every day. Our biggest concern is making sure that they have the energy and they stay healthy. ... This still has a ways to go, so we have to be in it for the long haul.”

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