Long-term social distancing and ethical choices: How grocery shopping will change in a post-Covid world

Carrefour and Waitrose will likely change the way they operate after the pandemic, and you might too

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , April 05 – 2020 :- People wearing protective face mask after doing shopping at the Carrefour supermarket in Ibn Battuta mall in Dubai. UAE government told residents to wear facemask and gloves all the times outside the home. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online/Instagram.
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As one of the only industries that has been able to operate throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, supermarkets and grocery stores have seen their sales soar.

But so unprecedented has the rapid escalation in grocery shopping been, many retailers in the UAE are struggling to keep up with demand.

In a bid to avoid crowded supermarket aisles and tills, more consumers than before are ordering their groceries online – but the load is proving too much for some e-grocer portals.

We anticipate a new normal in the mind of the consumer, one where online shopping has become familiar and even expected

For instance, if you were to attempt to shop online at Carrefour right now, you can expect a two-week wait time, Choithrams will take one week, and Lulu Hypermarket will take one month to deliver you your groceries.

Some products have also become harder to come by, both in-store and online, bolstered by much of the general public putting their newfound free time towards becoming master bakers, with flour and baking powder becoming hot commodities across the country, and around the world.

Instore, it's a lot less manic, but perhaps therein lies a clue about the seismic shift in the way the grocery industry will come out of the pandemic: could the frenzied Saturday afternoon showdown at your local hypermarket become a thing of the past?

Well, maybe not, but one thing seems to be for certain: the shift in consumer habits we thought of as temporary before the pandemic, could in fact become permanent.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 31, 2020 Empty shelves where packets of flour would normally be stocked are pictured below half-empty egg, and sugar stocks, inside a Waitrose supermarket store in north London, as life in Britain continues during the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. - "Flour is one of those invisible bits of the food chain until it isn't there," said Alex Waugh, director general at Nabim, which represents Britain's millers producing the staple. Along with pasta, rice and tinned food, flour is hard to come by in UK supermarkets since shoppers began stockpiling in large quantities around a month ago, even before the country went into lockdown. (Photo by Isabel INFANTES / AFP)

Things such as heightened awareness of hygiene standards and practises, less trips to bricks and mortar stores for consumers and a newfound focus on online shopping for fresh produce could become the new normal.

Here, we hear from those at the helm of two of the country's biggest grocery retailers, on what they expect shopping in a post-Covid world might look like.

Online grocery shopping will become a new staple for residents

This isn't a new concept, but it is one that has not yet fully been ingrained in daily life for many people. While many people made the switch to online shopping for the wider retail sector, such as beauty products, clothing and electronics, online grocery shopping has taken a bit longer to get off the ground. But the last few months could have changed all that.

At Carrefour, online sales have seen triple-digit growth, since the pandemic forced the closure of restaurants and kept residents confined to their homes. This was on top of the 300 per cent year-on-year growth they were already experiencing.

Hani Weiss, Majid Al Futtaim Retail's chief executive officer, believes many changes will linger well beyond the pandemic. Courtesy Majid Al Futtaim

And according to Hani Weiss, Majid Al Futtaim Retail's chief executive officer, that trajectory could continue, to a lesser extent, well after the pandemic dies down.

"During March we saw a 50 per cent increase in online transactions at Carrefour compared to February, which in itself was significantly higher than pre Covid-19 levels," Weiss says.

"Looking ahead to a post Covid-19 world, we anticipate a new normal in the mind of the consumer, one where online shopping has become familiar and even expected."

To cope with the influx of business, 1,000 Majid Al Futtaim employees had been reskilled to temporarily help out at Carrefour restocking shelves and supporting staff.

Merly Ann Alerge, a customer services officer at VOX Cinema, restocks shelves at Carrefour. Courtesy: Majid Al Futtaim

Six new "fulfilment centres" for online orders had opened across the region, as well as their largest "darkstore".

Waitrose also expected their customers to now primarily look to shop online, marketing manager for brand and commercial Warwick Gird says.

"Online was important pre Covid-19, and will continue to be afterwards. We do expect a rapid acceleration during and post Covid-19 in terms of businesses offering their goods and services online," Gird says.

He added that customers would likely see an increase of products and online shopping options as a result of the pandemic.

Customers will be visiting supermarkets less and buying more 

Though people will be looking to purchase more products online, that doesn't mean instore shopping will disappear completely. But trips in to the hypermarket may evolve into a more planned out affair.

Weiss says that whereas shoppers in the Middle East tend to shop more sporadically, with daily ad hoc visits the the store to pick up smaller amounts of groceries, shoppers may now be more inclined to plan out their weekly needs more carefully, so they require less trips to the store.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , April 05 – 2020 :- People wearing protective face mask after doing shopping at the Carrefour in Discovery Pavilion in Discovery Gardens area in Dubai. UAE government told residents to wear face mask and gloves all the times outside the home. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Online/Instagram.

Gird agrees, as Waitrose customers have done the same.

"We are seeing a decrease in the frequency of shopping, and an increase in the amount of supplies people buy when they shop," he says.

Social distancing could continue

To ensure social distancing takes place across their stores, Waitrose has introduced several measures to encourage shoppers to keep their distance from one another, perhaps most notably, the stickers on the floor near the check-outs. This ensures people stand a safe distance apart as they queue to pay for their items.

While these won't necessarily still be in place once the pandemic is over, Gird believes shoppers may look to enforce their own social distancing in future anyway.

"We think the world may be a different place in terms of social etiquette after Covid-19, with more people being wary of the space they keep between each other and their interactions with other people. We expect this to play out in shopping behaviour as well," he says.

Instore hygiene and cleaning procedures will need to reach new standards

At Waitrose, new and improved "rigorous cleaning routines" will continue post-pandemic. This means all equipment in store, such as self-service scanners, payment terminals, trolley handles and tills, are cleaned daily and "at every available opportunity," Gird says.

But that doesn't just go for what stores are doing, but what they are selling as well.

Carrefour has reported a 490 per cent increase in sales of multi-purpose home cleaning products across the region, since the outbreak began. Sales of liquid soap have gone up by close to 1,000 per cent.

People will look to support local as a long-term ethical choice 

Since the pandemic began, a community-wide call has gone out to drive consumers towards buying and supporting local, or smaller, businesses – simply to ensure their survival. But this could become a prolonged, ethical choice for many people.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - January 23rd, 2018: Spinneys and Waitrose will be introducing warning signs in all supermarkets in the UAE on the effects of caffeine on children, following a  growing number of UK supermarkets banning sales of caffeinated drinks to under-16s. Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018 at Spinneys, Motor City, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Businesses had also joined the fray, turning to local producers to ensure they can supply what can't be sourced from overseas right now, but also as a way of stimulating the economy.

This shift had already begun prior to the pandemic, Weiss says, but it has been somewhat amplified and accelerated.

"We will see a more conscientious consumer in the post Covid-19 world," Weiss says.

"The current challenges have revealed some great initiatives by big and small businesses geared towards helping people within both their own ecosystem and the wider community. Going forward, the consumer will likely want to see such thoughtful initiatives continued, and they will vote with their wallets in favour of businesses that meet their principles."