While many stores have been closed or modified their services to help combat the spread of the coronavirus, one line of essential businesses remain open and busier than ever: grocery stores.
It’s no surprise that some of the hottest items local stores can’t keep on their shelves are cleaning supplies, nonperishable and frozen foods and, of course, toilet paper. Other goods like canning supplies, bread, meat, broth, flour and yeast have also been hard to keep in stock, according to local store owners.
Kim Ward, who owns Ward’s Shopping Center in Estelline with her husband Shon, said stores in bigger cities like Watertown and Brookings have been selling out of goods due to panic buying, which has led more shoppers to their small grocery store.
They have had to limit the amount of certain items customers can buy to ensure there is enough for everyone who may need it.
Even our best customers have to have limits, which are really difficult because we see these people that are like family, and we’ve been seeing a lot of faces that are not familiar to our store, Ward said.
So we’ve had to put limits on a lot of the products that we normally would never limit.
The Wards’ first indication that people were stocking up was about a month ago, when they received multiple orders for 30 and 40 pounds of hamburger. The bulk orders weren’t necessarily unusual, but the sudden demand from multiple people was.
This was when they realized they would need to limit sales of hamburger to one pound per customer, per day.
Ward said they have also had to set limits on items designated for WIC participants so there is enough left for those in need.
County Fair Foods Owner Chris Gamber said he has had to implement some limits as well, but usually only on sale items or other products that would sell out quickly.
He said they only get a limited number of orders from their warehouse, and not setting limits for customers would require him to order an entire truck full of a few items instead of the variety he needs.
That’s why we have ran limits on that, so that we can still provide and not have as many out-of-stocks in the store,” Gamber said.
But we are doing the complete best that we can do to provide our customers with the products that they need.
Gamber said he hasn’t felt the need to change the operating hours of County Fair like Hy-Vee and Walmart have because his employees have enough down time to do routine cleaning, which includes disinfecting shopping carts, freezer door handles and other frequently-contacted surfaces.
They also do cleaning overnight.
Hy-Vee and Walmart couldn’t comment locally, but their corporate offices have directed all stores to take precautions to keep customers and employees safe. Both companies have changed store hours from 24-hour business. Hy-Vee is now open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
And Walmart is open from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Both stores have an hour designated for high-risk shoppers at the beginning of the day.
The stores have six-foot markers on the ground to encourage shoppers to observe social distancing while standing in checkout lines. Hy-Vee has also made aisles one-way.
We have increased and enhanced our sanitization protocols throughout our stores,” Hy-Vee’s corporate website stated.
Employees are regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, placing extra emphasis on high-touch surfaces like door handles, PIN pads at the checkout, restrooms, and other high-touch areas.
Walmart has implemented similar measures and has increased signage to enforce a one-way entrance and exit to the store.
Walmart, Hy-Vee, County Fair and Ward’s all offer online orders for pick-up and delivery.
Gamber said he has had many customers take advantage of this service. Ward said their store is new to the online ordering system, but they have also received a lot of orders through the service.
Gamber said County Fair’s online orders have an 81% fulfillment rate, so he has the majority of items customers are looking for. Foot traffic is down in the store, but he hasn’t seen a decrease in profits or customers.
Ward said the panic buying that has occurred over the last month has created concerns at their store.
While an increase in customers might sound good for a business, the amount of freight they can order from their warehouse is determined by what they have ordered in the past, so they can’t replace the items flying off their shelves fast enough.
At a grocery store our size, we buy what we need to support the shoppers that we have had for years and years, she said.
We’re definitely concerned about our community — being able to offer what we need to for their purchases
But it’s become an issue here, even in our little grocery, getting the things that we need to have.