Retail and grocery stores around Connecticut are preparing to navigate the busiest shopping season of the year in the midst of spiking coronavirus cases and statewide infection rates not seen since the springtime.
With Thanksgiving and Black Friday next week, stores are planning for a familiar challenge with some unfamiliar constraints. A week that’s traditionally marked by consumers amassing at stores will be complicated this year. COVID-related hospitalizations are higher than they’ve been since May and Gov. Ned Lamont expects the state to exceed 100,000 cases by the end of this week.
Pandemic-driven public health guidelines urge people to keep their distance from one another, stores have had their indoor customer capacities capped at half of what they are normally allowed, and grocers are prepared to set purchasing limits on certain items prone to panic buying by concerned consumers.
In spite of all that, Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, said grocers are cautiously optimistic about the coming holidays and their ability to handle demand as surging virus rates fuel consumer anxiety.
“This is our Super Bowl. Thanksgiving is the busiest holiday of the year so we’re pretty comfortable with what that means,” he said. “But we’ve also got capacity limits of 50% in the stores and we’ve got the spike of COVID instances that are happening. It changes consumer demand a little bit. People are starting to stock up again.”
Grocers do not expect to experience widespread shortages of toilet paper and cleaning products during this surge, he said. Most locations will enact buying limits early if it seems like customers are beginning to horde those items again.
Pesce said folks preparing for the holidays should shop early and expect longer lines as the day gets closer. While grocers have been capped at 50% for months, he said most have not brushed up against that limit. That will change this weekend as shoppers head to the stores to prepare for Thanksgiving. Grocery store staff will be counting customers and in some cases, shoppers may be asked to wait outside until space clears out inside the store.
As the holiday draws closer, temporary shortages of certain items are likely. Pesce said some stores may run out of bagged stuffing, spices, and jarred gravy.
Gathering limitations may impact the types of products that sell out first. Lamont has called on Connecticut residents to keep their holiday gatherings to 10 people or less this year. Pesce said smaller turkeys may be harder to find as a result.
“People aren’t buying 22-pound turkeys, they’re buying 14-pound turkeys. That’s such an American problem to have: ‘I can’t get a 14 pounder, I gotta get a 20 pounder.’ Think about that,” he said.
Timothy Phelan, president of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, said Black Friday should not look too different for consumers who have grown accustomed to the pandemic-related precautions that have been in place since retailers opened their doors again in May.
Shoppers can expect to see retail staff wearing masks, plexiglass dividers at the checkout lines, and directional signs to reduce traffic congestion in the aisles, he said.
“That part of it won’t be any different. Retailers will be welcoming customers in their stores. They will have products and good services to make sure that the customer’s shopping experience is as positive as can be during a pandemic,” he said.
Retailers are subject to the same 50% capacity limits as grocers. But Phelan said that even before the pandemic, the industry began moving away from the crowd-driven, “door-buster” sales culture that once defined Black Friday.
This year shoppers will have plenty of options to limit or even eliminate their time inside stores. Online orders can be delivered directly to customers’ homes or they can come in for store pickup or curbside pickup, he said.
The changes are designed to “give customers more of a shopping experience that they enjoy rather than the frantic clustering of people looking for that one item. I think nationally retailers this year in the pandemic, they have adjusted to that and they’re changing the way they’re promoting sales,” he said.
The governor has urged consumers to be mindful of the mask and distancing requirements as they head to the stores this season. Even as officials in other parts of the country consider reinstating lockdown protocols, Lamont said Monday he wants to keep retailers open to encourage economic activity.
“Unlike last time, we all agree that this time, it’s not a matter of a lockdown, not a matter of a shutdown, it’s a matter of a tailored response. We all agree that we’re able to keep retail open safely as long as we keep our distance, avoid any overcrowding and wear the mask. That’s important as you have Black Friday and Thanksgiving coming up,” he said.