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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Checkout: COVID-19: Smalltown grocers are community social hubs

The Checkout


NOTL resident John Scott is chair of Niagara College, as well as a former CEO, current board member and retail adviser in the grocery industry. He offers his perspectives from the grocery aisles in the era of COVID-19.

John Scott

Special to The Lake Report

Peter and Jacqui have been owners of a grocery store in a small community in northern Ontario for over 30 years.

From the outset, in pursuing this career, they understood that they would hold a very special role. They would need to ensure that each day on opening their store was not only filled with product but that the environment was pleasant and conducive to a leisurely shop; they were current with community issues and events to discuss with consumers; they knew the days when pensions and payroll were received; they were prepared to listen carefully to stay abreast of changing consumer demands; they knew and responded to special days for regular customers; and above all they were prepared to delight every consumer that came into their store.

Over the years they rolled with their community realizing that evolving demographics result in the need to accommodate new preferences.

One of the major trends became the daily shop by their growing, retired population. They came to understand that their store was a respite for loneliness and, for many, was no longer just a place to buy groceries – but had become a needed part of their personal community.

So, they encouraged their staff members to interact with these consumers and over time a special bond was formed.

Enter COVID-19. A few weeks ago, we had a Zoom call with Peter and Jacqui and the conversation moved to the dramatic changes in the business and the adjustments they had been forced to make.

One was the significant increase in online and delivery orders. Another was the limitation of the number of customers in the store.

But the one that clearly hit Jacqui the hardest was the need to request that customers limit their store visits to once per week. She knew the personal impact this new policy would have on so many of both her consumers and staff.

With tears streaming down her cheeks she told us that many seniors were calling her with their order rather than going online. The reason: they wanted to chat with someone who was an essential part of their community. The solution: Jacqui has chosen to stay on the line and speak with them despite her workload.

This reality came home to me in spades when I read the news media reports quoting requests by our local Valu-mart retailers that consumers limit the number of times per week they are in store.

I know that it has been extremely difficult to refocus grocery stores from being a delightful shopping experience to an essential food depot. It has been even more challenging to change the mix in product offering.

But that aside, I can guarantee that asking our NOTL consumers, (many of whom shop every day for the same reasons Jacqui and Peter have experienced), to limit visits to what has become an essential element in their personal community has been one of the hardest requests they have ever made of their customers.

It’s the antithesis of the concept of the community grocery retailer who is always on your side and strives to accommodate your needs at every turn.

So, we owe much more to these retailers than the reality of the exceptional job they are doing in being open and fulfilling our needs through this crisis.

We owe them compassion and understanding as not only their business model, but their social reality is being sorely challenged. Our visible goodwill, expressions of appreciation and steady patronage are essential and must extend well beyond this crisis.

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