Life inside a grocery store: Restocking, staying clean, handling the rush — and changing its business model on the fly

The outside of the Stew Leonard's store.

The milk and bread came in Monday and Tuesday. Hand sanitizer is coming in Thursday. Or maybe Friday. A sense of normalcy? That’s way too far out to predict, said Steve Dampf, the store manager at the first Stew Leonard’s location in New Jersey, an 80,000-square-foot store in Paramus that opened to much fanfare in September.

“May, June … end of summer; it’s too early to say,” Dampf said. “We just know things are different. A lot different. And we need to adjust.

“You know, we’re constantly working on a preparedness plan here for emergencies. We’re constantly talking about best practices at all of our stores. But this is the first time we’ve had to put something like this into practice.”

Dampf talked with ROI-NJ on Wednesday afternoon about the new normal in the grocery business. Each store in the industry has its own challenges, he said. Many are the same, some are different — depending on its location and business model. The only constant? Everyone is looking for toilet paper.

Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the obvious. How is your supply chain? How difficult has it been to restock the shelves?

Steve Dampf: The things about Stew Leonard’s is we buy most of our items directly from farms and farmers. We don’t use distributors, so it’s easier for us to get product in the store than other supermarkets. That doesn’t mean things haven’t changed.

We have plenty of milk, but the place that makes our milk is not doing chocolate milk right now. And the market on chicken is a little tight. But we know the restaurant distributors are hurting, so we’re turning to them because they’ve got product. We’re figuring it out.

ROI: Let’s stay on restocking. What do your shelves look like compared to a week before?

SD: They’re probably 80-85% of what they usually are. And we’re usually at 110%. One of the things you’ve got to realize about this store is we make these huge displays. ‘Pile them high and watch them buy’: That’s our philosophy. So, we might not be piling as high. But it’s getting better every day. I come in at 5:30 in the morning, the trucks are lined up waiting to drop. So, I don’t think there are issues with most of the stuff that we’re getting in.

You have to understand, we don’t have a lot of paper goods. We don’t have a lot of soap. We don’t have a lot of cleaning supplies. That’s not what our niche is. We’re a fresh food market: 80% of our items are fresh food. Only 20% is grocery. So, the items that are harder to find were never the biggest part of our business.

ROI: How is business? We’ve seen the pictures of stores — experienced it ourselves. It’s like the day before Thanksgiving; everyone has a full cart. That has to be good for the bottom line, yes?

SD: We’re doing great in certain aspects. We’re certainly busier than we normally would be in March. But other areas are down. Our hot bars are closed. That’s a big part of our business. Could be 20% or 30% percent, depending on the time of year. But, because we don’t want customers within less than that 6-foot social distancing, we’ve closed all the hot bars. We’re packaging pounds of wings and putting them out so people can still access what used to be out there, but it’s not the same way as when they can mix and match and fill up platters.

We had to close our outdoor seating area, too. That’s big for us. And catering. There’s nobody doing catering. So, yes, we’re busier, but there are parts of the business that are completely at zero.

And prices on certain items are being raised to us (he wouldn’t say which ones). We’re going to absorb that; we’re not going to be pushing that on to customers.

ROI: Talk about some of the other changes you’ve made because of coronavirus?

SD: All of our self-serve areas are closed. There are no more demos in the stores, no more tastings. We don’t want people gathering, so they’re all gone from the store. That even impacts a lot of areas, like bagels. We normally would have bagels out and let people to help themselves. Now, we’re individually packaging bagels so customers don’t have to touch them.

We’re taking precautions in every way and we’re wiping stuff down on a constant basis. We have to.

ROI: All of this requires employees. A lot of them. We’re guessing that’s your greatest concern — finding people willing to interact with customers during this time. How is that going?

SD: I have to say our employees have been great. We’re not getting any call-outs right now. And we’re certainly not cutting back any hours.

The people who are on the front line, in constant contact with the customers, like the cashiers, are a little bit worried. How could they not be? So, if they want to wear a mask, we’re letting them wear a mask. We want them to feel comfortable.

And everybody in the store is wearing gloves, no matter what department they work in. We’re washing hands and changing gloves constantly. That’s what we have to do.

ROI: Let’s talk customers. We’ve seen footage of fights at some stores. How has the civility been there? Any ugly incidents?

SD: Actually, it’s been the opposite. They’ve all been really appreciative of the fact that we’re trying to stay stocked and they see what we’re trying to do as far as cleanliness. And we just started opening early to let seniors in. They are appreciative. And we’re happy to do it. It’s the right thing to do.

ROI: Some stores in New Jersey are seeing a flood of more pickup and delivery orders. Are you? How are you handling it?

SD: We definitely are, and it’s tough. We are a few days behind. We use (an outside company) to deliver, and they are a few days behind because of the volume. They just don’t have enough drivers. How could they? How could they have seen something like this coming? No one did.

ROI: Speaking of seeing this coming, let’s talk about your location. You’re an anchor at the Paramus Park Mall, which is one of the busiest in the state. Now, that has been forced to close. You’re not getting that daily drive-by traffic. How is that impacting you?

SD: It makes it tougher. We’re getting a lot of customers that are calling and asking, ‘Are you open?’ That’s the main thing. We had been putting signs out on Route 17 so people could see we’re open, but the town wanted us to take it down. It’s a little sandwich board that says we’re open, but they don’t want us to have them. So, we’re doing other things through our marketing department with emails and social media.

The good news is, we are getting a bunch of new customers because they know that we’re open and stocked.

ROI: OK, last question : lessons learned. What are you doing now that you wished you would have been doing a week ago?

SD: The most important thing we’re going to do is limit the purchase of certain items, so more customers can get what they’re looking for. Paper towels, bottled water, soap, things like that. Those are things that now we will limit. We’re not sure exactly what the quantities will be, but they will be limited because we don’t want to be out of items. We want to have everything that our customers want.

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