A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 6, 2020

From Pampering To Plexiglass: Supermarkets Are Trying To Adjust To the Pandemic

Safety has supplanted shopping as entertainment - and consumers appear fine with that. For now. JL

Jaewon Kang reports in the Wall Street Journal:

New customer behavior is materializing as shoppers visit stores less but buy more. Saturday and Sunday were historically (the) busiest days; traffic is now more evenly distributed throughout the week. Shoppers will accept fewer options. Leaders see opportunities with prepared family meals, as people cook more at home. Customers are required to wear masks, and stores closed their doors if lines at checkout went more than two deep. To ensure distancing, taped indicators (are placed) throughout stores and (there are) plexiglass dividers at cash registers. Security guards (are) visible.
Wegmans became one of the country’s most famous grocery store chains by lavishly pampering its customers with cooking demonstrations, restaurants and movie nights. Now every customer is a potential risk.
The shift required by the age of Covid-19 represents an existential challenge to the 104-year-old family-owned company as it upends a shopping experience that made it a household name across the U.S. Northeast.
The chain’s famed food bars, which sell everything from pizza to sushi, are closed. Its beloved free samples are gone. It removed varieties of pasta sauce, yogurt and butter as Wegmans loaded up on basic staples. Its stores—built to resemble European-style market halls—now feature plexiglass dividers at cash registers and more security guards to keep customers in line.
“A huge part of our business has been treating our customers really as guests and entertaining them. We can’t do that anymore,” Danny Wegman, Wegmans Food Markets Inc.’s 73-year-old chairman, said in an interview. “We lost our mojo. We have to replace it.”
That same dilemma is now a core problem for many businesses that constructed a culture around indulging the customer. Walt Disney Co., known for feting customers at its theme parks with an extreme attention to cleanliness and order, plans to reopen Disney World in July with mandatory temperature screenings, a “social-distancing squad” that will encourage visitors to stay 6 feet apart and no meet-and-greets with favorite Disney characters. Nordstrom Inc., a department-store chain famous for its personal styling, is warning customers that specialized services like alterations, skin care and beauty makeovers may be unavailable as it reopens certain locations.
The businesses that might have an easier time of this transition are those that refrained from overpampering when times were good. Warehouse style retailers like Costco Wholesale Corp. and Home Depot Inc. long ago designed their stores to be more utilitarian than customer fantasyland.
Before the pandemic started Wegmans had one of the strongest customer followings of any supermarket in the country, according to a recent ASCI survey. Its most loyal shoppers, who call themselves Wegmaniacs, turned up in the thousands for store openings, fashioned clothing from the grocer’s shopping bags and organized road trips to visit all 101 of the company’s stores. The chain founded by Walter and John Wegman regularly appeared on rankings of best places to work, thanks to benefits like health coverage and tuition aid for part-time and full-time workers as well as culinary training for in-store chefs. It generates nearly $10 billion in annual sales and employs 52,000.
That vaunted loyalty among customers and workers was tested as the pandemic spread in March, culminating in what Wegmans managers called “Black Thursday”—March 12. Across the company’s stores in the Northeast, shoppers were buying loads of nonperishable foods and household products, clearing the shelves while fresh food sections remained quiet.
Fewer ChoicesWegmans is carrying fewer paper products,which have experienced some of the biggestshortages and variety reductions during thecoronavirus pandemic.Number of paper products Wegmans iscarrying, change from March 1 to May 27Source: the company
Paper towelBath tissueFacial tissueNapkins-50%-40-30-20-100
“I had never seen the toilet paper shelves totally empty. Canned vegetables, gone. Pasta, gone,” said Mr. Wegman, who visited the Pittsford, N.Y. location that day.
Wegmans executives realized then that the grocer would have to reorganize its business—immediately. The company closed the large on-site restaurants which comprise roughly 10% of its sales. In-house chefs have been redeployed to work registers, run sanitation and manage carts in parking lots. Seafood departments stopped displaying fish on ice and deli counters stopped slicing deli meats to order. Also gone were the copious free samples and a dozen or so cooking demonstrations each store held every week.
Safety emerged as a key concern for employees who feared for their health. Colleen Wegman, 49, the grocery chain’s chief executive and Mr. Wegman’s daughter, worried about her father; the two live next door to one another in Rochester, N.Y. and share a yard. Colleen grew up visiting Wegmans stores on Saturdays with her grandfather, father and sister Nicole Wegman, another company executive. Colleen and Danny started driving to Wegmans’s Rochester headquarters separately.
“We needed to keep our stores open,” said Bob Farr, senior vice president of store operations who started working for the retailer at 16. “In order for us to be open, we had to keep our employees safe. That was job one.”

Wegmans lowered the number of shoppers and workers in its stores to a 15-20% capacity. It also introduced job-protected voluntary leave to part-time and full-time employees at stores and warehouses.
Another reminder of the new dangers posed by the pandemic came on March 22 when a shopper at a New Jersey store allegedly coughed on a Wegmans employee and told her he had coronavirus after she asked him to move away from her. The man was charged by the New Jersey Attorney General with making terrorist threats and waived his initial court appearance before a judge, according to the attorney general’s office. The case will be presented to a grand jury for potential indictment, but nothing further has been scheduled. The man’s attorney didn’t respond to calls and emails for comment.
The event led to more changes that produced unusual scenes in Wegmans stores. Security guards were stationed in visible spots for employees’ comfort and to keep customers in line, Ms. Wegman said.
Customers were required to wear masks, and stores closed their doors if lines at checkout went more than two deep. To ensure distancing between customers and cashiers, Wegmans taped indicators throughout stores and placed plexiglass dividers at cash registers.
The company declined to disclose the number of employees who have tested positive, but said less than 0.5% of its workforce have been affected.
Keeping distance from shoppers has taken some getting used to for Wegmans’s tightknit staff. About 20% of workers are related to another employee, and it isn’t unusual for three generations of a family to work for the chain at the same time.
Daylan Burgess, a customer-service employee who works the produce section at the Potomac, Va., store, once had long conversations with customers who would stand nearby. Today, shoppers ask questions from afar and keep things brief. Some employees found masks made it difficult to communicate with shoppers and are testing out plexiglass face shields.
Cashiers and customers at the checkout still stand close even with safety measures in place, said Wilson Boyce, who works as a cashier at a Wegmans store in Canandaigua, N.Y. While most shoppers follow the rules, some don’t pay attention or read instructions.
“In some ways, it’s more awkward. Customers aren’t necessarily used to it,” Mr. Boyce said, adding that waits at the register are longer since cashiers are required to wipe down the conveyor belt after each customer checks out.
With more areas in the U.S. reopening, Wegmans leaders are rethinking how much food and how much customer experience it can offer—and how much customers will want. The retailer is devising new ways to introduce products and offer services that follow new protocols, said Ms. Wegman, the CEO. While free samples remain risky, the store is considering packaging samples that shoppers can consider for home meals and asking workers to describe the featured morsels over store microphones.
Customer favorites like the Mediterranean food bars with olives and hummus are back, though with pre-packed rather than self-serve selections. Deli counters have reopened in some stores.
“We built our stores to be the most intimate supermarket shopping experience that we know of,” Mr. Farr said. “We’re finding new ways to be intimate.”
That means stocking more of what people need during this time. Restaurant suppliers saw their orders vanish as restaurants closed, and Wegmans saw an opportunity to move those bulk products directly to consumers who were stockpiling at home. The grocer began signing up new suppliers in March, buying food from restaurant-supply distributors like Sysco Corp. and selling bulk-sized items like 10-pound bags of pasta it secured from wholesaler Big Apple Deli Products. It also sold restaurant-sized quantities of frozen vegetables, rice and tuna.
With many grocers calling, some suppliers say Wegmans came first. “They take the number-one priority,” said Sherry Berkley, chief executive of household products company Berkley Green LLC, who stopped making her own brand of cleaning items in March to supply Wegmans with private-label products. The retailer’s order volume has nearly quadrupled since March.
Before the pandemic Wegmans touted its wide selection: roughly 52,000 items, more than one third as many as the average U.S. supermarket. It trimmed that assortment by more than 40% to sell roughly 30,000 products, a move to focus on key items. It removed some pasta-sauce varieties from shelves to focus on fast-selling flavors like traditional and meat.
Shelf LifeGrocery shoppers are buying moredisinfectants and shelf-stable foods.U.S. in-store sales from Jan. 4 to May 16,change from a year agoSource: NielsenNote: Categories with biggest sales growth.
Oat milkFresh meatalternativesHandsanitizerAerosoldisinfectantsYeast0%100200300400
“I didn’t have four brands of butter. I had one or two brands of butter. We didn’t carry three sizes of yogurt. We carried one,” said Marty Gardner, the grocer’s top merchandising executive and a 38-year company veteran.
Wegmans also made several moves to get products to its stores faster. As customers panic-bought canned goods, pasta, paper and cleaning products in March, the grocer sent trucks more frequently to its warehouses and the trucks left 70% filled rather than the typical 90%. Instead of receiving packaged chicken cuts ready to be sold, Wegmans took loose chicken pieces and wrapped them in the store to speed up the movement of supplies.
The frenzy has let up somewhat since, with the food supply largely recovering. But shoppers are hauling home larger grocery loads as they cook more, executives said. Wegmans average in-store and online basket size has increased by roughly 30% to 40%. Sales growth is likely to decelerate as consumers slow their pace of buying, industry experts said, and costs of doing business will be expensive as labor, safety and sanitizing expenses rise. Wegmans declined to disclose recent financial figures.
There is evidence that some aspects of the old Wegmans are returning. Some variety is coming back, and purchase limits on items like bread are lifting. Roughly 30% of staffers who took a voluntary leave have come back.
On the RoadWegmans made more frequent trips from itswarehouses in March and April to stock itsstores as customers panic-bought staples.Monthly number of trucks going toWegmans stores from warehousesSource: the company
.tripsIn 2019In 2020Jan.Feb.MarchApril 02,5005,0007,50010,00012,500
The company is learning that shoppers will accept fewer options and executives are thinking carefully about the level of assortment they will need in the future. Leaders see long-term opportunities with prepared family meals, as people cook more lunches and dinners at home. Wegmans will focus on affordability and ways to bring services online. The grocer continues to add more room on its floors by removing displays or making them smaller.
New customer behavior is materializing, too, as shoppers visit stores less but buy more. Saturday and Sunday were historically Wegmans’s busiest days; traffic is now more evenly distributed throughout the week.
“Our business used to be quality and service,” Mr. Wegman, the company’s chairman, told more than 15 Wegmans store managers in Buffalo, N.Y. who dialed in for a virtual meeting on a recent Saturday. “It’s changed to serve our customers and our people from a food safety standpoint. You’re stepping up.”


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