With more families staying home due to the coronavirus pandemic, online sales account for a larger portion of grocery stores’ revenue in 2020.
According to data compiled and published in September by the market research firm Statista, the number of online grocery orders nationwide for pickup or delivery almost quadrupled between August 2019 and August 2020, going from 16.1 million to 59.5 million. In terms of sales, that is an increase of $4.5 billion.
The explosion in online grocery shopping pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to announce on Nov. 2 that it was expediting the expansion of its SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot Program to include select grocery stores across 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Prior to April, the only states accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for online grocery shopping were New York, Washington, Alabama, Iowa, Oregon and Nebraska.
FireLake Discount Foods has experienced the surge in online sales as well. The location on South Gordon Cooper Dr. launched its own online shopping platform in 2018, and throughout the first year, the store saw some mild growth with approximately 15 to 20 orders per day for a two-person team.
And then came the coronavirus pandemic.
“When COVID hit, we saw that increase in the end of March, all through April, most of May,” FireLake Discount Foods manager Mike Lester said. “We saw our online orders increase by 100 times.
“There were days when we were filling 300 orders per day.”
To accommodate the steep uptick, personnel from other grocery departments quickly found themselves moonlighting as personal shoppers. Originally, the shift was just among departments within the grocery store that management shut down early on to prevent spreading the virus, such as the bakery and deli.
However, it quickly became apparent that the store needed even more help to keep up with the increased demand for groceries, prompting employees from other Citizen Potawatomi businesses and programs to slide over and start pushing shopping carts.
Sarah Lawrence, a personal trainer at FireLake Wellness Center, was among the Tribal employees that helped fill the influx of online grocery orders during the pandemic.
However, when she first showed up at FireLake Discount Foods to lend a hand, she performed temperature checks instead.
After helping another employee fill some online orders during a lull, she was handed a customer’s online shopping list and turned loose in the store. Within a short period, she began showing other employees the ropes and encouraging them to shop as if it was for their grandmother.
Acknowledging the importance of word of mouth to the store’s reputation, Lawrence said she made a point while shopping to call or text customers before making any substitutions, even at the height of the pandemic when certain items or brands ran in short supply.
As an example, one particular customer requested a gallon jug of a specific brand of barbecue sauce. It was not in stock at the time and needed a substitution. However, when it became available again, Lawrence texted that customer to let her know — a move that kept that shopper’s business with FireLake Discount Foods.
“I’ve worked for the Tribe for 17 years and think of us as one big family,” she said. “I don’t want to do something that would give the grocery store a bad reputation, especially if I’m not going to be there full-time.”
Since the initial surge that required assistants from Lawrence and other employees, the store has been able to adjust its operations to accommodate for the greater online shopping demand. FireLake Discount Foods plan to launch a mobile app by the end of 2020 to help facilitate ordering.
“Early on, we were adjusting on the fly,” Lester said. “We have figured a lot of things out and are very close to offering the same personalized feel to our online shopping as we do for our in-person shopping. We’ve been working every day to help make the service better from a staff perspective.”