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Seattle Safeway, Albertsons head: New limits on WA grocery stores ‘not significantly different’

Vicki Phillips (L) and her friend Wendy Priest take advantage of senior shopping hours at a Safeway grocery store early in the morning on March 19, 2020, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The new restrictions for retail and grocery stores announced Sunday to help slow the spread of COVID-19 have hoarders hunting for toilet paper once again. To get a better sense of what shoppers can expect at grocery stores as the capacity drops to 25% this week, Karl Schroeder, the president of the Safeway and Albertsons Seattle Division, joined KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show.

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“Before when we were in phase one, grocery stores were at a 30% limit,” he said. “And so the new restrictions that kick in tonight are really not significantly different. It’s a 25% limit.”

The vast majority of stores, Schroeder explained, actually never hit the 30% limit. There were a few times at peak shopping hours when shoppers may have had to wait, but because there are a lot of Safeway and Albertsons locations in different neighborhoods, and many hours for people to shop, capacity is rarely a problem.

“To be sure that we’re being as careful as we can, we’re going to go to single entrances at all of our stores — most of them have dual entrances — just so that we can do a better job of counting,” Schroeder said. “Make sure that we’re keeping track of folks in and folks out.”

“Quite honestly, though, I really don’t think you’ll see us at the limit,” he added. “Maybe a little bit as we get into the weekend or closer to Thanksgiving just because it’s usually more traffic. But I think what’s happened over the course of the COVID experience here is shopping patterns have changed a little bit.”

In general, the stores are less jammed because Schroeder says people are shopping earlier in the day, and often weekends aren’t quite as busy as weekdays.

“It’s kind of flattened out,” he said. “We still have senior hours that will help us as well. So we’re going to count, we’re going to make sure that we’re being safe, but I really don’t anticipate we’ll hit the limit.”

Keeping the supply chain strong

Over the weekend, people were rushing to stores and buying up toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, and stocking up on non-parishables, similar to the panic buying seen back in March when COVID first hit. Schroeder says, however, that if people just buy what they need, there will be no issues with supply.

“We’ve been anticipating two things,” he said. “One is there could be another surge, and so we’ve been working hard on supply chains in anticipation of that. And then, of course, we’re going into Thanksgiving anyway, which is normally a big food holiday. So we’ve been really, really trying to think ahead.”

There are two warehouses in the state of Washington for perishables and non-perishables, there’s outside storage for things like paper that the stores have been using and ordering in advance, and then Safeway and Albertsons are a national organization so “if we see something tightening up in Washington state,” Schroeder explains, “we can pull from other warehouses in other states.”

“If you went into a store late last night, the paper aisle is a good example where folks were starting to stockpile again,” he admitted. “We’ve gone back to limits, but we really have plenty of supply at the warehouse.”

Every store gets trucks every day, so it’s just a matter of replenishing, he said.

“Now, if folks buy irrationally and stockpile, then it’s going to create a longer term problem,” he said. “But there’s really no need to do that. This isn’t an earthquake, or a snow storm, or a power outage. Trucks are running, warehouses are open, we can replenish.”

“Come in, buy what you need until the next shop,” he added.

Safeway and Albertsons are open regular hours, so people can shop at a time that’s convenient for their schedules. There are still senior hours for those in more at-risk populations on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the start of the day, and the company has enhanced e-commerce options as well.

“When we spoke before, I think it was back in April, we had 42 stores that had the drive up and go option where you could order online and pick it up there. We now have 123 stores up and running, and we’ve more than tripled the number of slots for each store,” Schroeder said. “So e-commerce is a great opportunity. We’ve got plenty of options for folks, plenty of hours, and really plenty of supply as long as folks just buy what they need until their next shop.”

“If we do get busy, our folks are geared up to restock. The warehouse is on alert,” Schroeder added. “We’re replenishing from the business over the weekend.”

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It’s tricky logistically, he admitted, but this is what retail grocers do.

“If we stay in somewhat normal patterns, … we’re going to be fine. People are shopping less, I think I mentioned, coming in less and buying more, but that’s been the normal pattern now for nine months. So, you know, we’re prepared for that and we can replenish around that.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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