Operating a grocery store in the COVID-19 era: A Q&A with Longo’s Anthony Longo

In this ongoing Q&A series, Canadian Grocer checks in with grocery store operators from across the country

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the grocery industry, and Canada’s food retailers have been forced to adapt quickly to keep staff and shoppers safe.

In an ongoing Q&A series, Canadian Grocer is checking in with grocery store operators from across the country to find out how they’re doing, how their job has changed over the last couple months, and what long-term impact COVID-19 will have on their business.

Here, we catch up with Longo’s president and CEO Anthony Longo.

Longo's president and CEO Anthony Longo.

Longo’s president and CEO Anthony Longo.

What safety protocols have you put in place that you will keep post COVID-19?

In situations like this, we must be flexible and adaptable to ensure we can properly protect our team members and guests. We are prepared to make all changes required and to keep those measures in place as long as necessary. While we want to get back to “business as usual,” the way we shop and interact with one another will be different for the foreseeable future.

At this time, we expect the use of face coverings in public spaces will continue to be enforced.

Guests can also expect to see continued limitations on store capacity as we begin to ease restrictions. Max capacity will not return for many months to come.

As we begin to ease back into our regular services, some of the specialty Longo’s services like the deli, bakery and prepared food sections will be able to resume with the addition of safety measures like Plexiglass dividers, which have already been installed in some of our stores.

We continue to add progressive and proactive measures into our stores based on the recommendations of the studies from CDC, John Hopkins and, of course, Canadian Public Health authorities.

What lessons have you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The entire industry has learned many lessons, but perhaps the important of these is that we all realize the importance of putting our team members first and alleviating their stresses. Without a core team that feels respected, heard and valued, we will be missing the mark. As a family business, our team members are always first and that is why very early on we invested in progressive preventative measures. I know we all have a very promising future if the entire industry embraces those lessons.

We also learned being open and transparent is critical. We made the decision from day one that that was going to be one of our core guiding principles during this crisis. We believe our team and guests have a right to know what we are doing and when we have issues.

Lastly, I’d say we have learned just how agile we could be when we needed to be. We made decisions in hours, for things that we would have studied and created committee’s for–months of work. We learned let’s get the guiding principles right and then just go. We’ll be moving a lot faster in the future with our decisions.

What shifts in consumer behaviour have you observed over the last month?

We have found that it has presented an opportunity for guests to reconnect in different ways with their food. People are baking and cooking more and experimenting with new ingredients–things that our busy lives didn’t allow for before COVID-19. With kids at home and more of us working from our kitchen tables, there’s more opportunity for creativity and to get our hands a little messy.

In the last month, we are observing that safety and prevention are fuelling shopping habits, and while we were seeing an uptick in micro-trips, this has significantly changed with the recommendations to restrict shopping to once every week. People are now coming in prepared and making larger singular purchases.

We know that this heightened concern over cleanliness and disinfecting will certainly remain, potentially disrupting traditional modes of food and beverage sampling. On a much bigger scale, we can all expect a new brand-new shopper, one with new adaptability, a sharpened set of shopping skills and higher expectations for their shopping experience.

COVID-19 has raised concerns about international supply chains. How has COVID-19 changed the way you’ll procure products moving forward?

We have been very fortunate to not have experienced any major issues with the supply chain, though we continue to monitor the situation closely and restock as frequently as possible both in store and through Grocery Gateway, to ensure our guests can access the items they need.

We have many long-standing relationships with our suppliers, which helps navigate these issues.

We know these are uncertain times, but we want to emphasize to our guests that currently there is no cause for concern regarding shortage of food or goods. The supply chain remains intact, prices remain level, and we continue to get products delivered to our stores daily. We are equipped to manage these changing demands.

We have been big supporters of local for 64 years and we certainly will continue to pursue locally grown or processed products, supporting our local communities.

COVID-19 has accelerated online grocery shopping. What does this mean for your business?

Longo’s is in a unique position when it comes to online grocery shopping and delivery, as we were the first major retailer to offer this service to guests when we made our acquisition of Grocery Gateway in 2004. It is true that we have been moving in the direction of online shopping for several years, but social distancing accelerated adoption in an unprecedented way.

Prior to COVID-19, the idea of shopping online for groceries was perhaps perceived to be a luxury. Though we had our core base, we know that some guests were hesitant to adopt this model. But in the very early days of COVID-19, online grocery shopping made a leap from a luxury convenience to a necessity, especially for those with compromised immune systems and the elderly.

At the end of the day, COVID-19-related spikes in online grocery sales has introduced many new shoppers to online shopping. That could have a lasting impact, assuming consumers view their experiences as positive. For many, this may well become their new preferred method of receiving weekly groceries.