by John McCurry, contributing writer
New York State was the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. That put incredible pressure on the industry to maintain safety while also keeping shelves stocked.
“We are very fortunate that we survived the peak pandemic in New York,” said Michael Durant, CEO of the New York Food Industry Alliance. “Overall, I think there is a new awareness among most folks, including elected officials, of how incredibly important our industry is to the community.
“There is more appreciation for our workers in all aspects of the industry. As appreciation grows, we solidify our investment in the community. There are a lot of good things going on.”
Durant said New York’s grocers saw “extraordinarily” high sales volume for three months. As New York has started reopening, that has stabilized but remains somewhat higher than normal.
Supply chain issues during the first few months of the pandemic fell more on the trucking side, Durant said. Warehouses have been full, for the most part, but there have been some issues getting products delivered to stores.
He predicted many of the protocols grocers have established – Plexiglass shields at checkout stations, one-way aisles and customer limits – will stick around.
“The salad bars and eat-in areas and grab-and-go foods may not come back for quite a while,” Durant said. “All of the safety protocols will remain, including the cleaning standards.
“A lot of what has been happening, such as the utilization of delivery services, will keep the foot traffic down. The discovery by consumers of how many retailers offer delivery options will continue to have an impact.”
Prior to the pandemic, one of the big grocery issues was the New York plastic bag ban, which took effect March 1. It is not currently being enforced. The state’s department of environmental conservation estimated that more than 23 billion plastic bags are used in a typical year.
“The regulations on how it was to be implemented did not come out until Feb. 18,” Durant said. “There was some chaos and confusion in the industry on what it all meant with the pandemic.”
Other than that, Durant said the industry was reacting to consumer behavior, which was why “grab-and-go” had become huge. Many stores also were either exploring or implementing delivery systems and online ordering. He said those that did helped themselves considerably.
“We are waiting to see how consumer behavior changes over the next couple of months,” Durant said. “It’s clearly unpredictable. The retailers will have to continue to adjust to consumer demands.”
Asked to assess the outlook for independent grocers in the state, Durant said their survival depends largely on geography.
“In urban areas, for some of them, there are widely different neighborhoods,” he said. “Manhattan is different from the outer boroughs because of the economic changes we have had.”
Durant added that the virus has had an impact on whether people have been able and willing to shop on the way to and from work.
“That has affected smaller chains and independents, but they are doing OK for the most part,” he said. “They are also going to be affected by how much of their business once depended on grab-and-go foods or dine-in spaces. If it was a large part, that has been dramatically curtailed.”