It’s been nice to see public sentiment towards grocery workers catch up to the reality of their situation. Grocery workers are on the frontlines of this pandemic, putting themselves at risk to stock shelves, work cash registers and bag groceries to keep stores open and people fed.
But despite new measures like social distancing, limiting the number of customers in-store, and plexiglass shields at checkout, at least 30 grocery store workers have died from COVID-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). Another 3,000 have called in sick with coronavirus-like symptoms. As the virus continues to wreak havoc in the U.S., both Grocery Dive and more recently CNN have written pieces asking whether it’s time to close grocery stores to the public and shift them all to delivery and pickup only.
Some stores are already doing this. Whole Foods is converting some of its locations to e-commerce fulfillment only. Amazon was supposed to debut its first full-on grocery store in Woodland Hills, CA last month, but has instead opened it only for online grocery and fulfillment. Kroger has done the same with at least one of its locations in Cincinnati.
Closing grocery stores would definitely help protect grocery workers by limiting their interaction with the public. And as we’ve written about before, warehouse type stores can also benefit shoppers because only grocery store workers, not other people, would interact with the food items.
But closing grocery stores to in-store shoppers on a massive scale just isn’t realistic right now. Grocery retailers are having a hard enough time dealing with the sudden rush in e-commerce, struggling to keep up with demand for delivery and curbside pickup. My local grocery chain doesn’t even have e-commerce, and has been working furiously to build that offering. Even the biggest retailers like Amazon are waitlisting new grocery shoppers, while ShopRite creates virtual waiting rooms before people can actually buy items.
Then there is also the question of who has access to online shopping. Just like the debate around cashierless checkout, the idea of moving everyone over to e-commerce seems to gloss over the large populations of people who are underbanked or don’t have consistently reliable online access. How would they shop?
We are living in complicated and scary times and there are no easy answers, especially as it relates to getting our food. We should be doing all we can to protect grocery store workers, and converting stores to online only would certainly help do that. But from a technological or even logistical standpoint, that just doesn’t seem possible right now.