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Pandemic Lessons Learned: Some Practices Will Persist In New Normal

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Greg Ferrara

This has been a year that most will want to forget but will always remember. As we watch it fade in our collective rear-view mirrors, we should never forget the lessons that 2020 and the pandemic taught us and how they permanently shaped the way grocery retailers will do business in the years to come.

A year ago at this time, few would have thought we’d be operating in a completely different world by the end of the quarter. And most indications are that 2021 is going to look more like 2020 than 2019. 

However, we can see glimmers of hope amid an otherwise bleak winter. There has been positive news of emerging COVID-19 vaccines amid surging case numbers as the old year came to a close.

Perhaps the most significant part of the new normal for independent supermarkets is e-commerce. The conventional wisdom of the past year has been that household penetration of grocery e-commerce has advanced since March to where it was expected to be in about five years. 

Fortunately, independent grocers invested aggressively in their businesses during 2019, including e-commerce, with 64 percent of respondents to NGA/FMS Solutions’ annual financial survey reporting they offered the service, a number that doubled from the previous year. 

And many grocers who entered the pandemic without an e-commerce platform were able to launch on the fly, either on their own or by partnering with a third-party provider. 

Consumers will continue to rely on online ordering, pickup and delivery as we emerge from the pandemic, so grocers must continue to invest in it.

Heightened awareness of sanitation will certainly have a lasting impact beyond the pandemic. Independent grocers led the industry in launching safety measures, from plexiglass barriers and masks to frequent deep cleaning and social distancing. 

As immunizations roll out and infection numbers fade, such restrictions should lift, especially those that impede grocers’ ability to engage with shoppers. 

But consumers will emerge from the crisis with a keener awareness of sanitation, and grocers will continue to deliver on their commitment to cleanliness and safety.

Grocers and their supply chain partners will continue to work closely together to ensure in-stocks of high-demand goods. The pandemic forced creative procurement measures and led to new partnerships and cross-channel trading.

Things will certainly stabilize post-pandemic, but lucrative new partnerships will persist. And public reluctance to return to restaurants at pre-COVID levels will mean more eating at home and continued greater reliance on grocers for food needs.

A wildcard for the new normal is the long-term impact on fresh departments, particularly self-service areas.

Many grocers have invested heavily in the touch and taste of their store experience, from hot and cold food bars to sampling stations, cooking demonstrations and in-store dining. The return of these features will depend largely on consumers’ comfort level versus their acceptance of pre-packaged replacements.

Bottom line: 2020 showed us that independent grocers excel in times of crisis, putting the needs of their customers and communities above all else. And it showed us that retailers can never rest on their laurels and must always be looking forward and innovating, ready to pivot in response to the world’s constant change.

Greg Ferrara is president and CEO of the National Grocers Association.

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