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In The Trenches: Connecting the old and new normal

Ron Pelger

Do you remember how business was done pre-COVID-19? Product was ordered from the warehouse, it was received, processed, placed on the sales floor and stocked into displays.

Do you know what they do now? They order product from the warehouse, receive it, process it, take it out on the sales floor, and stock it on displays.

So what is meant by this new normal?

The produce operation hasn’t really changed that much. Farmers still plant, grow and harvest produce. Shippers still send product to market. Retail buyers still purchase truckloads of produce. Distribution centers still select orders and ship them to the stores. Produce managers still stock the displays. Customers still continue to make their purchases.

Over the years, we have dealt with changes of all kinds in the produce industry. Many took place at the supermarket level, especially in merchandising and promotional concepts. Some retailers followed the consumer preference trends successfully while others failed to step over the line in fear of the unknown. The coronavirus is still that unknown and has us in a chaotic phase as it surrounds our daily behaviors.

It’s almost as though the objective of the coronavirus is to maneuver us into making unfamiliar changes from the ordinary. This has caused a major disruption in our normal operating format. It shocked the system last spring because everything happened lightening fast and all at once. During that panic shopping phase, the change was both positive and negative. Business and sales were overwhelming, but the interruption was dramatically stressful.

Perhaps the most significant change came afterwards. Company executives scurried in all directions putting together new policies and procedures based on the health and welfare of their employees and customers. Changes in working, shopping, eating and lifestyles were put into effect. The term “new normal” was thus created.

Considering the operational adjustments in the early stages of the pandemic compared to today, here are four examples that disclose a bit of confusion connected to the old and the new normal.

1. In the beginning, long lines outside of the stores. Store managers stood at the entrance allowing only a limited number of customers to enter. Now, no limits on customers.

 2. In the beginning, an attendant was wiping down carts and offering sanitizer. Now, there is a lone bottle of sanitizer and wipes available for customers.

3. In the beginning,  store operating hours were limited. Seniors were allowed to shop exclusive early hours on specific days. Now, no special shopping hours.

4. In the beginning, one-way aisles. Now, all those one-way stickers on the floors are getting time-worn while customers stroll both ways oblivious to them.

Here is a series of applications that remain as part of the new normal:

* Masks — It’s mandatory that all employees and customers wear masks in the stores.

* Social Distancing  —Whether you go to the grocery store, bank or elsewhere, those little footprint decals can be seen. That’s where we stand in line six feet apart from others to be waited on at the counter or checkout.

* Plastic Barriers — Clear protective shields at the checkout stands and other places of business will continue to be present between cashiers and customers to safeguard against airborne contaminations.

* Packaging — Bagged and container produce has increased sharply, created by customer demand for safer produce.

* Bulk Foods — All loose product has been placed in plastic cups and packages to prevent any possible contamination.

Let’s face it, too much happened too fast in the early part of 2020. We were hit with an unexpected shock into a life-changing event.

The front-line store employees were remarkable in serving customers all through the past intensified year. They still continue to face hundreds of shoppers each day and hold that same heroic workplace quality of productivity.

The unexpected shock came fast and full of fuzzy obscurities. What about future shocks? Will we be ready for more disruptions and a newer normal?

Welcome to 2021.

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