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Retailers are the new first responders

It hasn't been an easy road, but natural retailers are seeing significant financial payback—and love from consumers—while operating amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the national tragedy a generation ago that was 9/11, Americans learned a new household term: first responders.

These were the brave, selfless firefighters and police officers who were the first professionals on the scene to help contend with the aftermath of that awful terrorist attack.

Even long-haired hippie peaceniks were known to nod in assent to military personnel protecting airports and other vital institutions. (That lasted about until the Iraq war began, but still.)

But amid today’s novel coronavirus pandemic a new generation of first responders is rising to meet the challenges of the moment.

One nutritional company, Liquivida Lounge, is offering nutrient IV therapy at a 25% discount “to all first responders including nurses and other hospital staff” at any of its 12 nationwide locations.

And these first responders go beyond traditional health care professionals to include all of today’s “essential” businesses—in particular, grocery stores and the courageous and hard-working employees that are helping shoppers stock up on healthy foods (and toilet paper).

Nevada notwithstanding, natural food stores have been on the front lines working overtime to keep shelves stocked, speak with customers about appropriate immune-enhancing supplements and gently counsel customers to please put that extra packet of T.P. back on the shelf—all the while wearing masks and gloves and implementing new practices to keep themselves healthy in the face of the pandemic.

It's not easy

“Next to the people who are serving in the critical function like [in] health care and hospitals, we have as much or more touches than most people would in times of crisis,” said Cheryl Hughes, owner of The Whole Wheatery, in Lancaster, California, and board chairwoman of Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA).

We are still seeing hundreds of people every day. Health care professionals might not see hundreds every day. Definitely we are essential responders, as we provide community access to things they need. Herbs, if you think that’s medicine, or food and food to go. We’re part of the social fabric of communities today, though there’s not much social left.”

The juggling act is challenging. Stores are serving and supporting a wide range of customers—from the grateful to the cabin-feverish to the entitled—while contending with distributors that work with not just one store but hundreds to keep shelves stocked, supporting staff who may or may not feel comfortable coming in to work and assessing and implementing new practices as recommendations from medical professionals change day after day.

“Most of the people who have independent stores are a tenacious lot to begin with,” said Hughes. “We are a service to our community–we service locally, we provide employment, and here we are in a war. We’ve always been fighters, this cottage industry, on the front lines.”

“Local retailers are now first responders in their community,” said Kathryn Peters, SPINS executive vice president of business development. “Everyone is recognizing their community health-food store is just as much a first responder.”

“I think we’re a step below firefighters and policemen running into buildings,” said Adam Stark, Chief Miscellaneous Officer at Debra’s Natural Gourmet in Concord, Massachussetts. “But a little more on the front lines than your average person. We do think we’re essential services.”

"Our retailers are thankfully receiving more acknowledgement and respect for their efforts during these challenging times," said Stacey Gillespie, the brand director for Gaia Herbs supplement brand. "At a time when there is so much uncertainty and change, our retailers are one of the only places still open and available in their local communities, providing people security and support in many areas including food, health and wellness, and more."

High risk, high rewards

The financial payback can be significant—in mid-March some stores were reporting a week that was double their best week of the year. Immunity supplements and dry goods were being purchased en masse (if not outright hoarded), and cashier lines stretched into the aisles.

As the COVID-19 crisis escalated, stores shifted by installing plexiglass shields to protect cashiers from customers, tape was put on floors to keep customers on line socially distant from others, seniors-only hours were implemented, curbside delivery offered, and other measures considered in order to keep customers from touching all that produce.

And in return for their hard work: A sense of connection, words of gratitude and overt expressions of love.

“Small stores are connected and intimate, more so than a big-box store or even a grocery store,” said Hughes. “We know their families, who’s sheltered at home with a baby or an elderly family member. There’s a definite social connection that still exists.”

“Everyone is well intentioned and has the community at heart,” said Stark. “We’re feeling a lot of love from customers. Yes, we‘re feeling the love.”

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