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‘They just kind of did it’

The grocery business, an essential industry in perilous times, undergoes a sea change

It’s all hands on deck at Super Foodtown in Red Bank. Dozens of online grocery orders have to be filled before doors open at 9 a.m., and a line of 50 people has formed outside. Everyone pitches in to help: the deli manager, the dairy manager, store manager Joe Collison, the personal shopper.

There were 300 online grocery orders to fill throughout the week, a far cry from the normal 13 or 14. That was the old normal, before concerns about COVID-19 caused the state and federal public health officials to recommend social distancing to slow the virus’s spread, and before Gov. Phil Murphy issued a stay-at-home order effective March 22.

Now, in addition to orders that come in through grocery delivery service Instacart, orders through the store’s website have increased twentyfold, and Collison – a 42-year vet at Super Foodtown parent company Food Circus – thinks that the industry is changed for good.

ABOVE: Personal shopper John McCall fills an order. - JOSEPH COLLISON

Personal shopper John McCall fills an order. – JOSEPH COLLISON

“I don’t think there’s any question about this as a real shift,” Collison said. “We’ll see much more online shopping, especially with the curbside pickup. As a small family-owned business, we unfortunately don’t have the capacity of doing delivery at all locations. But I just spoke to [Food Circus owner] Lou [Scaduto] at 3 yesterday and he asked about my feeling on delivery. We do feel like this will be a change in customer shopping.” Food Circus owns five Super FoodTowns.

It’s been a banner few weeks for alternative grocery services across the nation, including curbside pickup and grocery delivery options. Instacart announced last week that order volume had risen 150 percent year over year and that the average customer basket size increased by 15 percent. Daily downloads surged 218 percent March 15 compared to February according to app store intelligence firm Apptopia. Downloads of similar apps Walmart Grocery and Shipt surged 160 percent and 124 percent respectively.
Even seniors are placing online orders, Collison said.

“We’ve never had that,” he said.

For New Jersey’s 112,484 essential food retail workers, as tallied by the New Jersey Food Council trade group, daily life within the store has also had a massive shift recently. It’s a dance of putting high-demand items on the shelves and of making customers feel comfortable and safe.

TP intensity

Toilet paper continues to be one of those items. Of the 50 people who were waiting for the front door to be opened last Tuesday, 90 percent of them went to Aisle 8 to snag a roll or two.

Bob Etzkorn stocks shelves in the dairy aisle. - JOSEPH COLLISON

Bob Etzkorn stocks shelves in the dairy aisle. – JOSEPH COLLISON

“Everyone that comes in is pretty much buying some type of toilet paper. I mean you have milk, that’s essential. But there’s no problems with milk, none with produce, no real issues with meat. We’re literally backing up with water, there’s plenty of water on hand,” Collison said. “It continues to be the toilet paper.”

Some online shoppers try to evade store-imposed limits on quantities with creative ordering. They’ll order a four-pack of Charmin, a six-back of Angel Soft, and a roll of FoodTown paper, but they’ll be called.

“They’re just trying to give it a shot. And that’s okay,” Collison said. “I know people get frustrated with people trying to hoard these products. I talk to my staff like, ‘listen, we don’t know anyone’s circumstance,’ we’re all understanding it’s an unusual situation and it calls for unusual measures. We just explain to them what the limits are.”

Though purchase limits help extend stock, it does nothing to lessen the hubbub.

“As the limits go from limit of four [packs] to two to one, people think we’re never going to get toilet paper now and they start buying it a lot. It snowballed into some craziness,” Collison said.

Cleaning supply stock is sporadic, but store managers are starting to see sanitary wipes come in, which they haven’t seen in over a week. Gallons of FoodTown bleach are still available—“people forget you just mix bleach with water and it’s a sanitary product,” Collison noted. But little by little, he’s seeing more cleaning products trickle in.

Deliveries are not as reliable as they used to be, he said. The delivery that used to come between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. daily to be packed out by the night crew sometimes doesn’t come until 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. the next morning, and the typical 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. dairy delivery comes later in the day than usual.

Super Foodtown of Red Bank’s Store Manager Joe Collison. - JOSEPH COLLISON

Super Foodtown of Red Bank’s Store Manager Joe Collison. – JOSEPH COLLISON

Not everything is toilet paper, though. Produce deliveries, for example, have had no interruption; but more often than not, it’s the frozen vegetables and fruit that are leaving in concerned people’s carts.

“A carton of strawberries won’t last for two weeks, but frozen spinach will. But the unfortunate fact is that strawberries are gonna come in. They’re here. But the frozen food section is a challenge to build back up,” Collison said.

Collison’s staff take pride in their work, he said, and they keep showing up. The handful of employees that have chosen to take some time off because they might be more susceptible to illness still have a job without question.

“I haven’t had many employees come to me and say ‘I don’t wanna do this.’ They’re saying ‘where can I be of most service?’ If it’s a dairy guy, he’s checking on produce, if it’s a produce guy, he’s asking if I need help in the deli. I’m very impressed with the way that they’ve banded together without any real direction,” Collison said. “They just kind of did it.”

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

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