How The Pandemic Has Changed Food Safety Protocols in Grocery Stores

Consumer habits are constantly changing, with varying preferences on how and where they shop. Trends and personal preferences have influenced purchases for years. And this year, COVID-19 forced many consumers to change behavior, not out of preference, but necessity.  Routines have shifted to align with health regulations, and grocery shopping has not been exempt from this change. Grocery stores became (and remain) one of the most important retail establishments since the start of the pandemic.

“The New Normal”

As most every consumer has experienced this year, grocery shopping habits look a lot different than they did even a year ago. At the beginning of the pandemic, many consumers were deciding to stock up on foods instead of making their regular weekly trip to the store, in an effort to reduce exposure when possible. As a result, grocery stores had to adapt to this new routine. 

The shelves in grocery stores were often wiped out by bulk shoppers. This ultimately goes beyond inventory issues. How stores would restock their shelves and what they would provide had become critical as they rushed to adapt to new consumer demand. This puts enormous pressure on not only the store itself, but also the supply chain as a whole. 

Grocery stores have had to adjust themselves to the rate at which consumers were frequenting the shops and how much they were buying. Manufacturers and retailers were working around the clock to replenish shelves, while adapting operations to keep customer and employee safety top of mind. People that usually would eat out at restaurants began flooding supermarkets instead, whether it was utilizing grab-n-go options or switching to home-cooked meals. Ultimately, this also pushed grocery stores to evaluate how they were handling their food safety. Over time, as grocery stores have changed, they’ve also started to take on QSR food safety processes.

Grocery Stores and Their Physical Changes

The pandemic has also brought physical changes to grocery stores as well. In some stores, aisles have become wider to accommodate for social distancing while shopping. Most grocery stores have implemented directions on the ground to instruct which way shoppers should go when navigating their way through the store. For instance, most aisles are one way, so customers may need to reroute paths in order to get to a specific product

grocery aisles have designated directions so that they're all one way

Having wider aisles is helpful in terms of distancing and health consciousness, but in some cases, this also means that there’s less space in the store for products. Less space means less stock, which can leave grocery managers to make tough decisions on what to order and stock on a regular basis, and how to maximize shelf space in the new layout. 

Many stores, not limited to just supermarkets, have also begun implementing self checkout stations to minimize face to face interactions. Self checkout screens are generally sanitized and wiped down after every customer use to ensure cleanliness. At traditional checkout counters, plexiglass has been installed between the cashier and the customer to reduce risks of infection and the spreading of germs. Hand sanitizers have also been placed at entrances and exits to encourage a simplified version of hand washing as often as possible. Cleanliness and sanitation isn’t only for the safety of customers and employees,  there are many food safety risks within the store. 

Another precaution that grocery stores have begun taking is limiting the number of shoppers in the store at a time. Some grocery stores have an employee stationed at the entrance, keeping track of how many customers are entering and leaving the store at a time. If the store has reached full capacity, a line is formed outside, filtering shoppers in as others leave. Also at the entrances are sanitizing stations for shopping carts and baskets. As customers leave the store, they leave their cart or basket with an employee who spends time sanitizing and wiping down the surfaces. That way, each customer that comes into the store is guaranteed a clean cart. 

New Consumer Habits

With the pandemic, it seemed like consumers were split between going down a more health conscious route or consuming more cheap comfort foods. So, despite what many people may think, both produce sales, and sales for items such as ice cream and coffee have been thriving during COVID. This means that grocery stores have had to restock all types of products swiftly, not just frozen or premade meals like one might assume.

Another habit that supermarkets began noticing was that consumers also reached for in-store brands over independent offerings, as well as gravitating towards grab-n-go items, such as granola bars, which made for easy snacks since mostly everyone would be working from home. Along with that, shoppers were buying a smaller range of items, which prompted grocery stores to focus more on keeping their 1,000 most popular items in stock. In fact, even companies cut down their offerings. For example, Frito-Lay sliced its “number of unique barcodes” to try and get more products on shelves quicker. 

Though many grocery stores have returned to its original amount of inventory and stock, the initial spike in the amount of food consumers were buying wasn’t easy to deal with. Frozen foods and vegetables had a lot of momentum at the beginning of the pandemic, but as people began falling into a new routine, habits changed.

Online Food Shopping

There has also been a major shift from in-person grocery shopping to a digital solution. As consumers began turning towards shopping online, there’s been a race to capture customer loyalty from many companies. Not only did Amazon offer online grocery shopping options through Amazon Fresh, but companies like Walmart announced subscription services for food delivery in an attempt to compete. Grocery shopping apps such as Instacart doubled its workforce since so many people started to prefer having their groceries delivered.

online grocery shopping and deliveries have become popular since the pandemic

Curbside pickup has also become extremely popular since the beginning of the pandemic. The influx of customers going to stores to pick up their groceries has caused grocery stores to change their parking lot layouts to better handle the traffic. Not only is an e-commerce option more convenient for those who have started to work remotely and don’t have the time to grocery shop, but it also reduces risks of airborne germs and infections. Grocery stores have also adapted to this change by offering digital savings opportunities that retain customer loyalty as well. Some stores have created loyalty programs to incentivize customers to continue shopping at their store. Shoppers can earn points that can be redeemed later and used towards products for a discount. These types of programs aren’t new, but more supermarkets have taken them on to appeal to the e-commerce side of grocery shopping. 

With delivery as a main outlet for food shopping, supermarkets have learned how to package and deliver produce and goods without exposing them to any food safety risks. Though online grocery shopping existed before the pandemic, the outbreak caused grocery stores to accelerate their processes and abilities to send foods out to customers in a safe and health-conscious manner. 

As the pandemic progresses, it’s imperative that grocery stores don’t loosen up on their safety protocols. Keeping safety measures in place even after the vaccine has been distributed would ensure a safer shopping environment for consumers. Even in a “safer” world, you will still need to show why you earn consumer’s trust that your environment and product is safe. Though the start of the pandemic may have caused supermarkets to struggle, their quick adaptations to customer habits and safety regulations have improved business for them. 

Grocery stores will always be a necessary and top priority retail establishment for consumers. Safety in these stores is crucial for both workers and shoppers. The change from before the pandemic has been pretty drastic, but in the long run, it’s been for the better.