Shopping safely: The challenges of managing a grocery store amid COVID-19

Grocer Antonio Leto never imagined that he’d be managing an essential service during a global health pandemic, but that’s what he’s inadvertently been tasked with doing in keeping his customers, his staff and himself safe from COVID-19.

“Walking into the store never used to be so stressful,” admitted Leto, who manages a Metro outlet in Toronto. But now, “you’re kind of getting that feeling in your stomach even before you walk in.” 

To ease those anxieties, Leto, like many grocers around the globe, has put in place a laundry list of measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. 

“We wash every buggy before it’s used by any customer, we wash any basket before it’s used by any customer, we have a custodian throughout the day washing sections, we stop in between customers to wash the [checkout] belts,” said Leto. 

His store has even gone so far as setting an alarm that goes off every 25 minutes to remind cashiers to wash their hands.

Staff at a Toronto Metro store disinfect grocery carts after customers use them. (Antonio Leto)

“Seeing the success and all the hard work and dedication of all the employees in the store and how they’re coming together and working for the community — I guess that is the satisfaction that gets us through the day,” said Leto. 

‘Never been prouder’

Chris Karsisiotis, a store manager for Loblaws at their Maple Leaf Gardens location in downtown Toronto, can relate to that sense of pride.

“I’ve been a store manager for 11 years with this great company of ours, never expected anything like this, but I will say I am very proud. I’ve never been prouder to work for this company,” said Karsisiotis.

Chris Karsisiotis, manager of a Loblaws in Toronto, is asking customers to touch only what they intend to buy, shop alone and respect social distancing while in the store. (Submitted by Chris Karsisiotis)

His store has put Plexiglas in front of cashiers and they’ve placed decals six feet apart on the floor to promote social distancing. They’ve also put directional arrows up and down the aisles to show customers the safest flow of traffic.

There’s some customers that are co-operating.  Some aren’t.​​​​–  Chris Karsisiotis, Loblaws store manager

Just how successful these measures will be in preventing the spread of the virus really depends on how customers choose to behave in the store, said Karsisiotis.

He and his staff are constantly educating shoppers on how they should act. 

“There are some customers that are co-operating. Some aren’t. But when you start to tell them the reason why we’re doing this, for their safety, people start to understand,” he said. 

Karsisiotis said he hopes that by asking customers to physically distance, touch only what they intend to buy, have only one person per household do the shopping and throw disposable gloves in the garbage and not on the pavement, all shoppers will begin to take these actions to keep everyone safe.

Leto said some of the shoppers at his Metro location are also not taking the measures seriously.

“Customers are not getting what is going on with COVID-19,” he said.

For example, he still sees some regular customers who live close by shopping once a day, something public health officials have advised against doing to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.

Leto also said he constantly has to remind customers that “the goal is to shop alone.”

Asking for understanding

Kristy Farrell, who manages a Sobeys store in Saskatoon, said she would like to see more understanding from customers when they see an empty shelf. 

Sobeys manager Kristy Farrell stands beside a sign an anonymous customer taped to the window of her Saskatoon store. (Submitted by Kristy Farrell)

“We’re doing double time to make sure that they have what they need when they come to all of our stores,” she said.

Farrell emphasized that “the effort that we’re making to try and secure” products is something that “the customer doesn’t necessarily see backstage.”

The majority of her customers, she said, are respectful and even express their thanks.

Farrell was pleasantly surprised when she arrived at work early on in the pandemic and saw a sign taped to her store by a customer that read “You Are Heroes.”

“Things like that make it well worth the effort for my [employees] when they can see that the work they’re doing is totally appreciated by our community.”

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