Health and Healthcare Systems

5 things supermarkets want you to know right now

Partially emptied shelves are pictured in a supermarket during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Munich, Germany, March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert - UP1EG3I0PB30H

Supermarkets worldwide want you to know there's no need to panic. Image: REUTERS/Andreas Gebert

Samantha Sault
Writer, Washington DC and Geneva
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Retail, Consumer Goods and Lifestyle

  • While many restaurants, shops and services are closing to slow the spread of COVID-19, supermarkets remain open.
  • US and UK supermarkets assure customers there is plenty of supply and no need to hoard essentials.
  • Stores are instituting special shopping hours for elderly and vulnerable populations.

Restaurants and pubs, beauty salons, museums and gyms around the world are closing – in some cases indefinitely – to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Thankfully, supermarkets remain open.

But supermarkets across the UK, Europe, US and Australia are nonetheless making changes to operations to meet increased demand and keep employees safe.

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Operating more than 3,400 stores across the UK, the supermarket chain Tesco, as just one example, announced “changes to simplify what we do, create the most helpful shopping experience we can, and support our hard-working colleagues.”

For people who are used to popping by the store any day, any time, and almost always finding whatever we want on the shelves, these changes may come as a surprise – and another source of anxiety during the pandemic.

But supermarkets want you to know: there’s absolutely no need to panic. There’s plenty of food and supplies for everyone, and these changes will ensure they will continue to be available for the foreseeable future.

Here are 5 things supermarkets want you to know right now.

1. Don’t panic if you see empty shelves.

Empty shelves don’t mean there’s a shortage of food and supplies. They simply mean stores and supply chains need to catch up with increased demand.

“Our supply chain is experiencing a truly unprecedented event with this crisis. We have never seen levels like this across the United States. And that's actually impacting supply chains,” said Greg Ferrara, president of the National Grocers Association in the United States.

“So, when you go into a store, if you see empty shelves, it's taking us a while to get the product flowing through supply chain back to the stores. But it is coming. It is coming through our warehouses. It coming to the stores. There is plenty of supply in the supply chain,” he explained.

“We just need time to catch up.”

Some supermarket chains are slimming down product ranges so they can focus on essentials.

“We need to make food manufacture as efficient as possible – it makes no sense to pause to change packet sizes or change from one type of pasta to another,” explained one UK supermarket.

“We have 20 different sizes and styles of pasta, we are moving that to six.”

To allow employees to focus on “stocking shelves, helping to provide the essential groceries you are looking for and to avoid waste,” Tesco will close meat, fish and deli counters and salad bars. Expect to see cafes, pizza counters and coffee machines closed in stores, too.

This doesn’t mean we’re running out of meat, salad greens or coffee beans; it just means you need to prepare these items at home.


2. There is enough food to go around if everyone buys fairly.

To cope with the supply chain disruption, stores are encouraging customers to buy only what they need.

Belgium’s Colruyt supermarket chain said hoarding is “really not necessary” because there’s plenty of supply.

Following a frenzied week of people around the world panic-buying essentials like toilet paper, some supermarkets are restricting purchases to ensure there’s enough for everyone. Tesco is limiting purchases of all items to three per customer to prevent unnecessary hoarding, while Sainsbury’s is limiting toilet paper, soap and UHT milk to two per customer.

In the United States, Harris Teeter customers may only buy three items in the following categories: toilet paper, canned meat, pasta, cleaning supplies and certain medications.

3. Supermarkets are hiring to cope with demand.

While many employees, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors, are facing job losses, supermarkets are hiring.

In the UK, Co-op has 5,000 new temporary jobs available, and encourages people to walk to their nearest store with a “view to starting work in a matter of days.”

Workers are also needed to keep supply chains moving.

The fruit and berry industry “will be mounting a large-scale recruitment campaign to encourage people who are in the UK and looking for work because of the current economic impact of the coronavirus to come and work on our farms,” said Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits.


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4. Elderly and vulnerable people have their own shopping hour.

While researchers are still studying COVID-19 and how it’s transmitted, we know the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions face higher risk of complications and death.

To ensure these populations have plenty of food and supplies with lower risk of coming into contact with the virus, supermarkets worldwide are instituting special shopping hours for them.

Whole Foods, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, to name a few, have designated the first hour after opening for elderly and vulnerable customers. Tesco stores are open exclusively for between 9-10am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.


Other stores encourage younger, healthy customers to continue to shop in-store as normal, or choose to collect online purchases in the store, allowing elderly, vulnerable and isolated populations access to grocery delivery slots.

5. Supermarket employees are working very hard at personal risk – and always appreciate a thank you.

While you’re hunkered down at home, supermarket employees continue to show up to work every day, putting themselves at risk as they come into contact with hundreds or thousands of people who may be asymptomatic.

Many stores, including Tesco and Whole Foods, will close shop early to allow employees the chance to sanitize the store, replenish stock and, of course, rest.

Others are building clear screens to shield checkout clerks and encouraging customers to pay by contactless credit card when possible.

What can you do? A simple “thank you” when you check out or notice an employee restocking the pasta aisle can go a long way in this difficult time.

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Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsSupply Chains and TransportationIndustries in Depth
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