Smaller turkeys, higher wages and big numbers forecast as grocers prepare for a busy, pandemic-flavored holiday season
Folks in the grocery business are preparing for a holiday season the likes of which they have never before seen.
Faced with a highly contagious, rapidly spreading virus, grocers again find themselves adjusting to meet the needs of customers, many of whom have been hunkering down at home for months and who are planning for holiday gatherings that may not look like any they have hosted or attended in the past.
"Are people still going to have big family gatherings? People are still going to have holiday gatherings of some sort, I think, but maybe not as big," said Pat Fox, the chairman of the Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly chain of supermarkets in Milwaukee's northern and western suburbs.
"My wife and I talked and we were saying, 'OK, we'll have a different kid over on a different day instead of having everybody over all at once,'" Fox said.
"I don't know," he said.
It's a safe bet there are people across Wisconsin having those same type of conversations.
Whatever shape holiday gatherings end up taking, grocers say they will be ready. The days leading up to the holidays are typically the busiest of the year for grocery stores.
"We expect robust demand for the holiday season," said James Hyland, a spokesman for Kroger's Milwaukee-based Roundy's division, which operates 106 Pick 'n Save and Metro Market stores in Wisconsin and 40 Mariano's stores in northern Illinois.
"With alternative holiday venues either unavailable or offering limited capacity, and with holiday travel being limited due to COVID-19, we anticipate smaller, but more, family gatherings this holiday season," Hyland added. "So, yes, we see things getting busier."
That would be more of the same for the industry.
The grocery business has, at times during the pandemic, been overwhelmed, first by panic-buying and then by continually surging demand as restaurants shut their doors or were ordered to limit the number of people they could serve at a time.
Meanwhile, many offices remain shuttered, a number of schools continue with all-virtual classes and life is continuing to revolve around being at home. Cooking has either been discovered or rediscovered by home-bound residents.
That has driven demand for groceries to the highest point ever. The demand seen during the late spring and summer was already surpassing what is typically seen during Thanksgiving week.
Expect those sales to remain strong headed toward Thanksgiving, even if things look a little bit different.
Take turkeys, for example.
"When (Fox Bros. stores) were pre-ordering turkeys, they kind of changed the sizing to the smaller sizes — because we order them by size," Fox said. "Instead of getting too many 18- to 24-pound turkeys, we went out and ordered more 10- to 12-pound turkeys because people are going to have smaller gatherings.
"That's some of the thinking ... done to try to anticipate how the consumer is going to react," Fox added. "We've definitely made some adjustments on how we look at things. Some people will celebrate and have dinners, but they're just not going to be the same."
Fox added that business had leveled off somewhat but has picked back up since a spike in cases has been reported in Wisconsin.
Boosting pay, adding jobs
Grocers have been hiring continuously since the pandemic was first declared. That is continuing headed into the holiday season.
Metcalfe’s Markets, which operates a grocery store in Wauwatosa, said this week that it is boosting the pay of its hourly employees by $2 an hour as the holiday shopping season approaches.
The $2 per hour extra is good until Jan. 2, the Madison-based grocery company said in a statement.
Company officials decided to add the extra pay "to show appreciation for team members’ exceptional health and safety efforts and hard work through the holiday shopping season," according to the statement.
"As the pandemic lingers, we had to try to find a way to express our appreciation to our 'Supermarket Superheroes' who are still here every day cleaning, stocking, providing the best service and staying safe in their home lives, especially as we move into our busiest time of the year," Tim Metcalfe, Metcalfe’s Markets president, said in a statement.
As part of its holiday strategy, Metcalfe's expects holiday gatherings "will likely be smaller in size this year," and the stores will be offering "heat and serve holiday meals as an alternative for those who will not be cooking for a large family event this year."
In addition to Wauwatosa, Metcalfe's operates two stores in Madison.
Grocers also say they are adding jobs heading into the holiday season.
"We will add staff for the holiday season as we do every year," Hyland said. "This year, the focus will be on hiring e-commerce staff as the demand for (online ordering and) pickup has not slowed since the onset of the pandemic."
Shelves should be well-stocked
Grocers say they are ready for what the holiday season brings.
"We are prepared for the holiday surge and we are fully stocked for in-home baking and holiday needs," Hyland said. Pick 'n Save is the market share leader in Wisconsin's grocery business.
Hyland said companies that produce consumer products have adjusted to the demand brought on by the pandemic and are much better prepared to deal with a surge than they were in spring when store shelves were emptied of some products.
Producers "have been able to increase production over the last few months," Hyland said. "While they’re not back to 100%, store shelves now contain many of the products that were unavailable during the early stages of the pandemic."