by Mary Margaret Stewart/staff writer
The first two to three months of the pandemic “went pretty crazy” in New Mexico’s grocery industry, said Breck Stewart, executive director of the New Mexico Grocers Association. A stressed supply chain and panic buying left shelves bare. That craziness, however, was good for the industry.
“The grocery business has been really good in New Mexico because of all this,” Stewart said. “Especially because all of the restaurants have been shut down and opened and shut down and opened and shut down and opened and shut down. It’s been a roller coaster in the restaurant industry.”
And Stewart couldn’t be prouder of how the state’s independent grocers – which make up most of his organization’s membership – have handled COVID.
“I believe our independent grocers stepped up and made a lot of changes, like Plexiglas and all the masks – everything was done before the bigger chains did. And we’re pretty proud of that,” he said. “But it’s because independents just get things done without having to work around the corporate.
“We’re proud that the Kroger organization became a member of ours last month, so we do have a bigger chain. We welcomed them in. I think they’ll add a lot of knowledge to our association.”
In attempt to lessen the spread of the coronavirus, New Mexico has gone in and out of shutdowns.
“We were shut down the first part of November,” Stewart said. “Our governor allowed 25 percent occupancy, or 75 people, whichever number is smaller. That was our hardest one yet.
“That’s not a lot of people, especially if you’re talking about the bigger stores – Costco, Walmart, Kroger and Albertsons. Those are huge stores, and that is a big reduction in their occupancy.”
Luckily for grocers, independents and giants alike, New Mexico recently lifted the restriction to 25 percent on all retail.
“During the 75 people [rule], all of the independents had lines out of our stores because of the pressure that was on the bigger stores,” Stewart said.
“In the first part of November, we were up to probably 3,000 to 4,000 cases a day in New Mexico, so that’s why they had the 75-people limit in essential businesses, and everybody else is on curbside or delivery.
“Right now, they’re down probably between 1,000 to 2,000 a day now, so it’s getting a lot better.”
Since the start of the pandemic, NMGA has been working with the governor’s office and the state department of health to draw up best practices for COVID, advocating for the well-being of grocers.
“The state began to shut down grocery stores if they had four cases in two weeks…that put even more pressure on the other stores,” Stewart said. “They would close them for two weeks was the rule…they were just cramming more people into other stores, basically.
“If our lines are already bad – and we only have 75 people allowed in stores – and they close a Walmart or a Kroger or an Albertsons, that really puts the rest of the stores at a higher risk.
“We got them to draw up a different plan that the retailers would agree to have a contract with the department of health to test all of the employees every month, or half of your store every two weeks…but we had to do that at the cost of the retailer.”
Looking to 2021, Stewart said the first thing on his mind is the COVID vaccine, something NMGA is advocating to secure for grocers in the state.
“I’m hoping all of the grocery industry employees get the vaccine before too long,” he said.
“Then this year, I just would pray that everything gets back to normal – that our warehouses can get back up to about a 95 percent fulfillment rate…maybe stabilize a little bit because it has been a roller coaster for everybody in the grocery industry, from the wholesalers to the manufacturers to the distributors to the retailers.
“It has been a rough year. A good year, but a rough year. The grocery industry has changed a lot.”