COVID continues to affect consumers


by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Consumer whims and trends can affect how they purchase farm goods. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven a major influence in how people shop. Martha Hilton, who manages produce merchandising at Rochester, NY-based Wegmans Food Markets, presented “Changing Consumers Through COVID” at the recent virtual New York State Agricultural Society Annual Meeting and Forum.

“On the retail side, we’ve seen a much different year than other industries,” Hilton said. “We all wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for agriculture.”

As with other industries, “we’ve all had to flex, learn different things and make changes,” Hilton said. “We can’t talk about COVID without talking about how everyone has flexed and done different tasks.”

Last March, consumers engaged in panic buying as there was widespread uncertainty about the availability of goods. Even typically well-stocked stores had bare shelves in numerous aisles, such as those normally brimming with canned soup, pasta, pasta sauce, bread and paper goods.

“Consumers certainly took to panic buying to make sure they were set for months – or years,” Hilton said. “Who thought we’d be standing in line for toilet paper? That happened in September and October when wave two came to fruition.”

By April, consumers saw empty shelves among popular items from panic buying as well as supply chain disruption. Dairy cases were emptied out, as no one wanted to find their family short on milk. Deliveries of goods were delayed as trucking firms were either reduced in staff or experienced shortages because of illness. Meat processing plants were shut down for weeks, causing stores to have limited supply of meat available.

“Empty shelves – fear and panic,” Hilton said. “For most of us, we’ve never had to wonder where our food would come from. That led us to have to limit supply and put a lot of regulations into place.”

Many retailers posted limits on purchases of some goods. Stores tried serving as many customers as possible and having products available throughout the day. Still, some locations experienced long lines as people wanted to stock up.

“This caused us on the retail side to make a lot of changes,” Hilton said. “Going to Wegmans 24 hours a day is gone. We’ve had to make changes.”

Initially, stores had to purchase signs to remind customers to wear masks, shields to keep customers separated from checkers and floor decals to direct foot traffic and keep those in line separated by six feet. Ongoing, they also must buy additional cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for employees. Stores typically open 24 hours now must close for a time every day to disinfect commonly touched surfaces.

Though these changes and challenges have affected customers in the grocery store, they indirectly also cause consumers to think about their food sources and the links in the food chain, from the scantily stocked store shelves to the delivery trucks to the warehouse and packing plant to the farm that grows their food. Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, it reminds consumers of the source of everything that they put on their dinner table.

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