COVID-19 Northeast Shelby Exclusives

Market Profile: Creativity Helped Small Stores Overcome Challenges, Gain Customers

Christine Cummings
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived last March, the grocery industry in Maine featured many independent stores that were not set up for online shopping. But according to Christine Cummings, executive director of Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, those grocers have since implemented that technology or are in the process of doing so.

“It’s a wide breadth of smaller storefronts, especially as you get into northern Maine, really servicing their community,” Cummings explained. “…I think they’ve seized the moment and capitalized on the opportunity to take advantage of some of the technologies maybe they had planned to do, but COVID kind of forced their hand into jumping into some of those.”

While grocers saw booming business in 2020, Cummings said Maine faced some labor shortages.

“They were hard pressed to find staff, especially to help implement a lot of the policy changes, whether it was extra sanitation practices, social distancing…or counting for customer capacities,” she said. “It’s been a really challenging year in the sense that they’ve been forced to make a lot of changes while they have been stretched thin.

“But at the same time, I think they’ve done an amazing job…working to ensure that everyone has been able to thrive, stay healthy and remain fed. They were really creative…finding creative alternatives to ensuring that their shelves are stocked.”

Many association members told Cummings they found new customers during the experience.

“They’ve been able to reach folks that normally wouldn’t have gone out there but went to their store because they had products available, or they didn’t have the lines that other stores had.”

And through the challenges, MGFPA was there to support its members. Cummings recalled developing an online resources page for members during the early days of the virus.

“Things really transpired from there. We went into crisis management, working directly with the governor’s office,” she said. “[To start], we had daily industry calls with myself and my colleagues across the country to understand what was happening.”

The association was able secure relief from some of the early capacity limits, which had been putting small stores at an economic disadvantage because they couldn’t turn customers around fast enough. It also joined with federal and state emergency management officials to distribute more than 125,000 face coverings.

And the work didn’t stop there.

“In the early spring going into the summer, folks were getting frustrated…so we launched the Let’s Be Kind Campaign, that ran with a two-month long PSA on local television networks,” Cummings said. “We featured some of our local grocery store owners, as well as some other local retail partners…reminding folks to be patient and respectful.”

She added that it became a well-received campaign.

“I think I’m most proud of the grocery store sector…the diligence of the store owners and their employees – just the way that they really have embraced this challenge…it’s been a frustrating long road, but everyone has continued to own and accept the challenge and really make the best of it,” she said.

“As we look ahead, I think it will be interesting to see how folks continue to rally around and embrace those grocery stores in their community.”

To read about Tweedie IGA, a group of three independent grocery stores in Maine, click here.

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