Online shopping, delivery can be more difficult due to ‘geographical vastness’
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
Over the past year, the grocery industry in West Texas has been booming. And it’s not likely to slow down, says Gary Huddleston, grocery industry consultant for the Texas Retailers Association.
“With the restaurants being either closed or limited, many people obviously staying at home, the supermarket business has been very, very good,” he said. “And fortunately, the supply chain has caught up, so in terms of out-of-stocks, I think it’s very minimal in our supermarkets today.
“The online – order and pick up at the store, or order at-home delivery – has exploded. And it was growing before the pandemic, and of course last year with the pandemic, that increased even greater.”
The West Texas market is similar to the rest of the state, said Huddleston, with the only distinction being that it’s so spread out. El Paso and the region’s other two largest metropolitan areas – Amarillo and Lubbock – are many hours and hundreds of miles apart.
“Of course, Walmart operates in those areas, as does a more localized company called United, which is now owned by Albertsons,” he said. “Then a more regional Texas-only based company, Lowe’s Supermarkets. Those are the major players in the market besides some other small independents in West Texas.
“Online is really growing now. West Texas is a little more difficult with online and delivery, because of the geographical vastness – it’s a little more difficult in the rural areas…but most of the retailers, even the smaller ones, are doing online and pick up at the store.”
Moving into 2021, TRA has a few main goals to help its membership navigate business with the ever-present coronavirus.
“The Texas Retailers Association is focused on helping retailers reopen,” Huddleston said. “Obviously, the essential retailers have been open, but TRA represents other retailers as well.
“The great news is masks are pretty well accepted today. Summertime last year, [it was] a difficult time of trying to mandate masks in many of the markets. Fortunately, we’re thankful that customers have accepted masks.
“And we’re very encouraged with the vaccine. Many of our retailers are actually helping with [it]. H-E-B, Kroger, Walmart have made their pharmacies or pharmacists available to help vaccinate folks. That’s been very encouraging. Like you hear all over the news…it’s just getting more vaccine.”
While Texas still is vaccinating groups 1A and 1B, Huddleston said a chunk of essential workers have already received one.
“Many of the employees may be in one of those groups – pharmacy employees are healthcare workers, so those employees have been for the most part vaccinated,” he said. “Then our industry employs a lot of seniors and over 65, so a fair number of those employees have been vaccinated.”
In addition to helping retailers reopen, TRA has a few items on its legislative agenda for 2021.
“In Texas, the legislature only meets every other year, and this is a year,” Huddleston said. “They’ve already started, but they adjourned very quickly because of COVID…They’re back at work [now].
“We’d like to see some relief on liability. If indeed, a retailer is doing everything by the health department standards, OSHA standards, the CDC standards, we’d like some protection from unwarranted lawsuits. We’d also like to see some tax relief for our essential businesses because they have been open, and they’ve spent a lot on PPE, plastic barriers, etc.
“Around the country, swipe fees are a big issue. There’s been some debate here in Texas about swipe fees being sales taxable. We want to clear that up and say ‘no.’ “Swipe fees are very expensive, and we don’t believe that they should be taxed with sales tax.”
And, of course, a big part of the business in the pandemic has been growing SNAP and WIC. Huddleston said West Texas also is advocating for expansion of nutrition programs.
“Fortunately, as part of the COVID relief bill, SNAP benefits have been increased dramatically, and that’s been helpful, both to the families who really need it, and also to the supermarkets that provide the products for SNAP and WIC.
“Several supermarkets are able to conduct online transactions with a SNAP card – we call it a Lone Star card. Then what we are in support of is doing the same thing with WIC, but we haven’t been able to yet. I think there’s some thoughts about it, but there’s no definite plan for allowing customers to use their WIC card for online transactions.”
For more on West Texas’ grocery industry right now, check out The Shelby Report‘s article with independent grocer Vista Markets, based in El Paso. To learn more about the Texas Retailers Association, click here.