CORONAVIRUS

At Corridor grocery stores, 'high-risk' hours, online order tweaks transform shopping experience

Retailers contiune 'to adapt,' Hy-Vee CEO says

Claire Emery-Wootton assembles a grocery order at New Pioneer Co-Op in Coralville on Friday, March 20, 2020. The grocery
Claire Emery-Wootton assembles a grocery order at New Pioneer Co-Op in Coralville on Friday, March 20, 2020. The grocery store has seen its daily online shopping orders jump from one or two to 18 in the last couple of weeks. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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With the spread of COVID-19, Corridor grocery stores have instituted a variety of changes, both small and large, in the ways they interact with customers and how they display merchandise — to protect their employees and shoppers.

Some retailers set aside store times reserved for older shoppers. But not all health care experts think that’s a good idea.

Among some of the changes that have been introduced, West Des Moines-based Hy-Vee has started installing temporary plexiglass windows between customers and employees at checkout aisles. Customers also no longer can bring reusable grocery bag, grab cheese samples or scoop bulk goods from the store’s bins.

“The spread of this virus is asking us all to take extraordinary measures and change the way we live our lives,” said Randy Edeker, Hy-Vee’s chairman, chief executive officer and president, in a news release. “We are continuing to adapt at Hy-Vee so that we can serve our customers and keep everyone in our stores as safe and healthy as possible.”

For many shoppers, online grocery platforms — including Hy-Vee’s Aisles Online and New Pioneer Food Co-op’s Co-op Cart programs — also have grown from a convenient offering to a must.

One week ago, New Pioneer shoppers placed between five and eight online orders a day, co-op brand manager Amy Hospodarsky said. On Thursday, she added, shoppers made 96 online orders — for which the minimum order amount was lowered from $50 to $35.

“So far, it’s been going well, we haven’t had any huge operational snafus, we just want to make sure that we’re continuing to figure out ways we can scale up,” Hospodarsky said. “We don’t anticipate the demand is going to slow.”

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She likened the overall level of traffic over the past week at New Pioneer’s three locations — in Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids — to Thanksgiving, with a larger average basket size per customer.

Though Hospodarsky said she has not seen “panic shopping,” and New Pioneer has managed to keep toilet paper in stock, she said the co-op has restricted each customer to two toilet paper or rubbing alcohol products as a precaution.

Both New Pioneer and Hy-Vee allow for curbside pickup of online orders, minimizing contact between customers and employees. Hy-Vee also has partnered with third-party partners, including Shipt and Door Dash, for deliveries, while New Pioneer currently is troubleshooting its own delivery program, Hospodarsky said Friday.

And numerous grocers have started holding “high-risk” hours so individuals at particular risk from the coronavirus can complete their shopping with minimal exposure to other customers.

Here are some highlights:

• Hy-Vee has reserved an hour each day for shoppers 60 years and older, pregnant women and people with medical conditions from 7 to 8 a.m. at its grocery stores and pharmacies.

• New Pioneer has set aside an hour for seniors and shoppers with serious medical conditions from 9 to 10 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

• Target has reserved the first hour of shopping Wednesdays at each of its locations for elderly shoppers and those with underlying health concerns.

• Walmart will hold senior shopping hours the hour before each of its locations open for customers 60 years and older every Tuesday through April 28.

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• Fareway will open from 8 to 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday for shoppers 65 years and older, expectant mothers and shoppers with “increased susceptibility to serious illness.”

‘A good idea in general’

The “high-risk” hours are geared toward giving vulnerable populations time to shop in as safe a store environment as possible. Some, however, have questioned whether the trend will do more harm than good, and result in gathering large numbers of vulnerable shoppers under one roof at the same time.

Alysa Krain, an infectious disease doctor specializing in geriatric medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, told the Washington Post she and her colleagues are advising elderly patients to have friends and relatives shop for them, rather than visiting the stores themselves.

“It was a good idea in general, but it’s a little bit dangerous if it’s not controlled,” said Krain, of the “high-risk” hours.

Bettina Fries, chief of Stony Brook Medicine’s Division of Infectious Disease, told the Post she also was concerned about the number of seniors in one space but saw potential, too.

“I hope the scattered shopping hours would lead to seniors being in a store with less people,” she said. “It’s less likely that you will have (a) senior with coronavirus in a store because they’re less likely to be asymptomatic.”

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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