COVID-19: How Canadian Retailers and Brands are Responding to the Pandemic

This past week has been a strange one in Canada — and stressful, especially for brands and retailers.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has been declared a pandemic and many Canadians are feeling the uncertainty.

This has resulted in, to name but a few major headlines:

  • Supply chain disruptions for manufacturers.
  • Borders closed to non-essential travel.
  • Dine-in restaurant closures (in some provinces, like Ontario, restaurants can only be open for take-out or delivery).
  • Panic shopping as consumers rush to grocery stores and pharmacies to stock up on supplies – particularly toilet paper.
  • Interest rate cuts, with potentially more on the way.
  • Staff who can do so being encouraged to work from home (a.k.a. social distancing).
  • And much more…

It seems that every hour we are hearing about another breaking news item related to COVID-19 as health officials try to contain the spread of the infection.

The Canadian retail industry has been one of those affected the most by these developments, and not all stores are impacted equally.

For instance, grocers are being inundated with shoppers and seeing huge spikes in purchases, while other retailers, such as clothing outfitters, however, are shuttering their doors to the public and sending staff home.

What can brands and retailers do? How can they respond? We’ve compiled what others are doing to flatten the curve.

Please note this information is current as of March 18, 2020. However, as the COVID-19 is evolving so rapidly, refer to Health Canada for the most up-to-date advisories and recommendations: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/coronavirus-disease-covid-19.html

1. Stay on Top of Stock Levels

Grocery store stockouts are creating major waves across Canada as shoppers rush to the stores to stock up, preparing for potential two-week quarantines — or longer.

Strangely, though, some of the items disappearing off the shelves the fastest aren’t what you would expect. Toilet paper, for example, has been one of the hardest supplies hit. Other staples like meat, bread, milk, and eggs have also been hit hard, as has hand sanitizer.

Some grocers have reached out to customers, assuring them there will be enough supply for everyone as the situation continues.

Others have implemented stock limits to make sure there is enough supply for all. Some U.S. locations, for example, limited toilet paper to two packages per customer.

This is a time when it is more important than ever for stock to move from the backroom to the floor. If stock is truly out, let customers know when it is expected to be back in. Keep open communication channels — both with customers and with suppliers.

Brands, check on your stock levels frequently, especially if you manufacture a product that is highly sought-after.

2. Bolster Online and Delivery Sales

While grocery stores are considered essential services and are remaining open for the foreseeable future, not all retailers are doing the same. For instance, clothing brands such as Aritzia, have closed stores and malls are reducing hours.

For these retailers, focus now on e-commerce sales if you have the option. Can you offer customers online promotions or discounts to help deal with at-home boredom if they are self-isolating?

Even for stores that are remaining open to the public, delivery is another option to explore. If customers can order online or over the phone and have their order dropped off outside their door, it can reduce the amount of face-to-face contact needed.

Some stores have been offering these services to vulnerable populations particularly, such as seniors, but it can also be a way to try to keep sales up even if in-person customers are limited.

3. Practice Deep Cleaning Practices

Retailers and brands remaining open can help reduce the risk of infection by practicing even better-than-normal cleaning practices.

This includes increasing store cleaning, wiping down packaging, cleaning high-touch surfaces, such as POS machines, self-checkout stations, and shopping carts, and more.

There have been reports of Costco stores handing out alcohol wipes to customers to wipe down cart handles.

Some stores are not handling cash and are only allowing customers to pay with cards. If you are following this practice, make that clear to customers before they reach the check-out.

4. Give Retail Staff Protection

While the health and well-being of customers are important, so is the health of your employees.

As grocery stores are considered essential, many retail employees do not have the option of working from home and avoiding face-to-face contact.

This could include:

  • Providing staff with handwashing stations and hand sanitizer.
  • Providing cleaning supplies for cash stations and guidelines on how often to use them.
  • Rotating shifts to limit contact.
  • Encouraging staff to stay home if sick.
  • Communicating with the public and with staff what you are doing to keep staff protected.
  • Temporarily stopping free samples or in-store demonstrations.

5. Think of Your Customers

Lastly, while this is a difficult time for brands and retailers, it is also a difficult time for consumers. While some are panic-buying to ease stress, there is a real undercurrent of fear for many, especially vulnerable populations.

There have been multiple reports of seniors who are too scared to go out of their cars and into the store, or who are unable to find the necessities because they’ve been bought out.

Ask how you can help these populations. For instance, some grocers and pharmacies are providing special operating hours for seniors only.

Could you create a care package of necessities for seniors that they can grab-and-go or that could be delivered to them? Or offer a delivery or call-in service for vulnerable shoppers?

For brands, some manufacturers are allowing shoppers to call them directly. For instance, multiple people have shared that they are calling baby formula manufacturers for refills instead of going to the store. If you offer this service, let consumers know through social media, email, and on your website.

While this is overwhelming and uncomfortable for all, think of ways you can provide more service to those who need it most.

The Retail Council of Canada has resources for dealing with COVID-19. See it here: https://www.retailcouncil.org/coronavirus-info-for-retailers/

How is your brand or retailer reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic? Share with us on social media. Storesupport Canada is on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

If you require additional support with your brand and in the store, as of today the Storesupport team is open for business and available to help during this time. Please feel free to contact us at 1-877-421-5081 or www.storesupport.ca.

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