Operating a grocery store in the COVID-19 era: A Q&A with Vince’s Market’s Giancarlo Trimarchi

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.

Giancarlo Trimarchi, CFO and controller at Ontario-based Vince’s Market, recently filled us in on COVID-19 safety measures and more. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

Giancarlo Trimarchi, CFO and controller at Vince’s Market.

Giancarlo Trimarchi, CFO and controller at Vince’s Market.

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

For the last five to six years—if you’ve just looked at Canadian Grocer articles—the focus has been all on prepared meals and ready-to-make food for our customers, and all of a sudden the last eight weeks it is all about bringing them back to the basics.

Root vegetables have done very, very well. We’re selling parsnips and beets and rutabagas and squash–non traditional items for this time of year. People I think are in the kitchen doing their different stews and soups.

It’ll be really cool to see what happens now as the weather switches. Asparagus is about to start, so will we see asparagus sales go through the roof as people barbecue?

The big question that everyone is so uncertain about is what habits from this are going to stick, and what habits are going to pass? They say a habit forms after doing something for 21 days in a row. We’re going to find out if that rule applies because so many people’s habits have been fully broken. So, will they return to their old habits?

Have you increased investment in online grocery to keep up with demand during COVID-19?

We have provided a phone or email-based home delivery service for 25 years. Super-community focused, so 95% even 98% of our orders are going to those who are elderly, or live in apartment buildings. So we had a process for taking orders and receiving them. But March 3, I signed a deal with Instacart to become our primary online shopping provider. We’re actually working through that right now so we can get rolled out in early summer. But, we couldn’t lose this amazing opportunity to react so what we ended up doing was—between the week of [March] 16th and the 23rd—we came up with a web form that customers could go in and place their order. It was still a very manual process, but we kind of digitized it. But we’re still going to go to Instacart, that was always the plan.

What safety protocols have you put in place that you will keep post COVID-19? Ex. Floor decals for social distancing?

Pretty much everything that’s been in the market: the Plexiglass, we have a greeter station that we set up right away and that’s still going on to this day, hand sanitizer and gloves for customers and doing the baskets in the buggies and monitoring the number of people [in store.]

For cash it means regular sanitization and wipe down of debit terminals, the belts, the cash lanes. They’re doing it either every time they receive cash—because we are still receiving cash—or they’re doing it every two to three customers.

We are doing a nightly wipe down of all customer facing surfaces with a sanitizer solution. Maybe [over time] the sanitizer solution changes to a generic cleaning solution, but our stores have never looked better. It’s a simple task for the cleaning crew that adds an extra 35 to 45 minutes a night–they literally spray and wipe all surfaces that the customer sees. I could definitely see those practices sticking around.

How will COVID-19 change the way you merchandise your store? How will it impact your product assortment?

We learned that shutting down our hot bar was a good thing for our business, we became more profitable by doing ready-made meals. Our hot bar we realized was a bigger source of cost than we thought. Whereas the packaged hot meals are very efficient. So, I don’t know that we’ll bring hot bars back to our business for quite a while.

Bakery, we now have everything wrapped. Bakery used to leave bread open, croissants open. My team is asking me to keep it sealed. They find that they’re getting better product freshness. So, I don’t think you’re gonna see big croissant racks coming out of this. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to that. We’re packing all of our buns and we’re finding our shrink is going down.

What has been your biggest employee management challenge or concern? How do you keep staff in good spirits?

What we did immediately was we wanted to listen to our staff, we put out requests right away: What do you want to make you feel comfortable? We took those requests in and then we were pretty quick at actioning them. And we had a very, very open mind to the team members that felt unsafe coming to work. We had to be very, very warm and open to those people that were tentative, and if they didn’t feel comfortable coming to work until they figured it out, that was okay.

What I have said to my staff is every time we choose to remove a program, I’m going to consult with them. That was my approach right at the beginning. I wanted them to buy into what we were doing. I’m gonna do the same thing when I take every program away. It’s another way of [reinforcing] to our team that we’re looking out for their best interest, that it’s not just a unilateral decision coming from ownership or management that we take Plexiglass away. It should be a conversation that the risks are minimal and the staff feel comfortable with that.