How It Feels To Be A Grocery Manager During The Coronavirus Pandemic

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How It Feels To Be A Grocery Manager During The Coronavirus Pandemic

I work as a manager at one of the premier grocery store chains in the country. To say that the last two weeks have been unprecedented would be an understatement.

It began the day after President Trump addressed the nation about the threat of COVID-19 and restricted travel from Europe. The next day, our grocery chain did more in sales than we had ever done before. We blew our previous weekend sales record out of the water, on a day that is usually the slowest day of the week for us. Shelves were completely empty in every department. Employees for the next few days were overwhelmed and understaffed. There's no way we could have anticipated this run on grocery shelves.

Since then, supply chain issues have made it difficult for us to recover. No one could have anticipated there would be a tremendous spike in demand for toilet paper, dry goods, and hand sanitizer. We still receive our regular deliveries on schedule — larger deliveries than we have ever received before — but not in the amounts that we need to fully recover from an unanticipated surge in sales. This has created a strange dynamic where every morning when we open, we now have a line of hundreds of customers waiting outside to snatch up the delivery we received that morning. Every day has become Black Friday — at a store that sells toilet paper, canned beans, and hand sanitizer — not 4K TVs.

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I can see the stress and fear in the eyes of those who have been waiting to enter our store when we open. As a manager, I stand at the door and request that everyone be courteous and orderly when they enter.  When the line of people extends around the building and back toward our loading dock, this is a necessary precaution. Customers are for the most part courteous and friendly. Many come in wearing masks and gloves now and you can tell some are shopping out of fear. Everyone seems to be subtly rushing their grocery shopping — anxious to get out of the contaminated “outside” and back to the safety of their homes. Needless to say, for most customers right now, this is not their usual trip to the grocery store.  

Recently, while restocking the toilet paper section, I took the last case we had out to the sales floor fifteen minutes after we opened. “If I’m not back in 5 minutes, come looking for me,” I joked with the manager attending the service desk as I carried this precious cargo to its shelf.

“If I hear screaming, I’ll come looking for you,” he joked back.  This short interchange brought to mind images of The Walking Dead, only in this instance I was the victim because I was the one who had toilet paper.

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As a leader for my team, I have found that the most difficult part of this pandemic has not been in dealing with frightened customers or empty shelves; the real challenge has been motivating my team. How does one encourage and inspire a workforce that knows they are being exposed to hundreds — if not thousands — of strangers on a daily basis, when the recommended course of action is to isolate oneself from others? Retail workers are on the front lines of the pandemic, being exposed at higher rates than most of the rest of the population. Fear is rampant, not only in the shoppers lining up before the store opens to stockpile dry goods and water, but in the cashiers and stockers knowing they are exposing themselves to infection — but needing to continue working to support themselves and their famlies.

I've found  the best way to engage and inspire my team is with honesty. “Be careful. Wash your hands. I know our skin is dry and cracking, but continue to use sanitizer as much as you can.  Wipe down your registers and screens with sanitizing wipes often. And finally, thank you. Thank you for coming to work, for stocking shelves and serving our customers with a smile." Retired journalist Dan Rather called us heroes. I’ve never been called a hero for my career choice before, but this time I’ll take it.

We truly are on the front lines of this pandemic. Next time you stock up on groceries, please don’t comment on the empty shelves or your disappointment in the available selection. We're aware this is not what you expect when you shop at our store and we're doing everything we can to get product to our shelves. Instead, take the time to smile, sanitize your hands, and say thank you. I assure you: we appreciate it.

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Flynn Rider has been in the grocery business for nine years. When he's not saving the world by stocking groceries, he enjoys watching Disney movies with his children while safely in the comfort of their home.