Store owner: Customers learned ‘smaller guys can maneuver and adapt faster’ to trends and needs
by Eric Pereira / staff writer
During the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting panic buying, independent grocers in Massachusetts experienced the volatility of the grocery supply chain.
“The greatest lesson I learned was to understand that every person has a different level of how to deal with something like COVID-19,” said Matt Cummings, store manager at Lees Market in Westport. “The supply chain is very vulnerable.”
Cummings said his store was trying to obtain similar items that could no longer be acquired from the main supply chains.
“Most of these items were of lower quality,” Cummings said. “But if you needed them, you bought them. Now that we are back to normal, the big brands are back on the shelf and there is no need to return to the off brands. Sourcing products from previously unknown suppliers was educational.”
Jon Cournoyer, owner of Big Bunny Market in Southbridge, said flexibility is key.
“I think the pandemic provided companies the opportunity to make changes under the COVID-19 reasoning,” he said. “It seems that when one challenge is solved, another arises, so we’re still in a fast-changing environment. I don’t think anyone knows what will change next.”
Cournoyer said the focus at Big Bunny was to maintain quality service and competitive prices, as his family has done for the past 70 years.
“Our attention was placed on store service and keeping customers and employees safe,” he said. “While we discussed adding online ordering, we ultimately held off during the pandemic.
“We have begun to work with Rosie to add their service in the near future. We will continue some of the additional cleaning protocols, like sanitizing carts and baskets, as well as leaving the protective barriers.”
Cummings also sees barriers remaining for a while, but noted certain services could make a comeback. His market already had online ordering, which increased greatly because of the pandemic.
“Salad bars might disappear, but I think self-service hot bars may return,” he said.
Cournoyer would like for independents to maintain new growth as a result of keeping their shelves stocked.
“Customers hopefully learned that the smaller guys can maneuver and adapt faster to customer trends and needs,” he said.
Cournoyer continues to see larger baskets at checkout lines.
“Customer habits have changed, where less trips are made to the store, so larger-sized items, multi packs, etc. are faster items,” Cournoyer said.
Cummings suspects people may have short memories.
“It will take some time, but we will return to normal as long as COVID-19 doesn’t reappear,” he said. “It’s hard to assess how Massachusetts handled the whole situation. This was new to us all.”
Cournoyer sees the accessibility of independents as a differentiator when competing against the big chains in their area.
“As a family-owned market, we are ‘working managers.’ So we are on the sales floor and accessible to customers and employees alike. You can speak directly to the decision makers,” he said.
“I also feel that an independent was better suited to navigate the challenges of the pandemic because we can react faster, order extra, substitute items, etc.”