If any industry seems bulletproof during a pandemic, it might be grocery stores. But consider some bygone supermarkets of Philadelphia past: Genuardi’s, Pathmark, Super Fresh, and Clemens, not to mention one-offs like Green Aisle Grocery, Perk’s Family Market, and Creekside Co-op (the successor to Ashbourne Market).
“It’s a tough business,” says Jon Roesser, general manager of Weavers Way Co-op, the community-owned grocery store with locations in Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, and Ambler. “We don’t operate as for-profit, thank goodness, because the for-profit guys, they’re killing each other over a 1% return on sales.”
Roesser, an alum of Super Fresh, admits that Weavers Way can’t compete with the pricing at large supermarket chains. On the flip side, the co-op’s supply chain is more elastic.
He recalls restocking Super Fresh stores with a nightly shipment of supplies delivered by one tractor trailer. “That was it, that’s all you had.”
In contrast, Weavers Way receives dozens of deliveries every day. When its bagel supplier, Jenkintown’s Fill-A-Bagel, temporarily shut down during the pandemic, the co-op tapped other local bakeries — Roling’s in Elkins Park, Metropolitan, and LeBus — to offset the shortage.
We talked with Roesser about how the pandemic has changed business, and what changes might be here to stay.
How have you been weathering this so far?
We’re fine, it’s nerve-racking. We have moved well beyond the stockpiling phase, and now we’re in a new, not desirable but necessary normal, where people are shopping as a matter of routine. Before the pandemic, we prided ourselves as being that community third place, where people come together to feel plugged into the community. It was basically our fundamental model that, as a cooperative owned by the neighborhood, this is Mount Airy’s living room, and same with our stores in Chestnut Hill and Ambler.
And now we have to operate under very different rules. Everyone’s got face masks on and we discourage long conversations in the aisles, which before we encouraged. So yeah, people do see each other, but it’s weird: All day long, you greet people more so with waves and head nods and that sort of thing — these are people that you would normally hug, and now you’re staying at least six feet apart. You wave and maybe say hello, but that’s it. It sucks. It’s just not who we are, it’s not who we want to be.
Instead of shopping every day — which was, again, part of our culture: You shop the co-op four or five times a week — people are shopping less. But when they do shop, it’s a much larger shop. That’s more like the typical suburban supermarket model.
Have you seen an increase in membership?
We have, quite a bit. I believe that’s largely because we decided early on to try to keep high-risk members out of the store. So we ramped up our home-delivery and curbside pickup capabilities. Before all this happened, we were delivering to like 10 or 12 members a week, mostly elderly members who can no longer get to the store. We’re now doing about 700 deliveries a week.
We’ve tried to make it mostly about if you’re high-risk. So if you’re 60 years old or older or have a member of the household who is, or if you’re otherwise high-risk, please don’t even come to the store. Just place your order and either come pick it up at the curb or we’ll deliver it to your house. And because that benefit is a member-only benefit, we’ve seen this really dramatic increase in membership. I think four or 500 members joined since the middle of March.
What’s the radius for home delivery?
Five miles from each of our stores. So with stores in Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, and Ambler, that covers basically Northwest Philadelphia and the immediate suburbs just north of here.
How does the pandemic affect the bottom line for a store like Weavers Way?
The third week in March was our highest sales week ever. And the fourth week in March was our second highest sales week ever. So yes, we did have record sales those two weeks. And we did have considerable expenses during those two weeks. We had a lot of overtime. And we, like most grocers, are paying our employees $2 an hour more since the middle of March. We’ve hired a bunch of extra personnel for home-delivery and curbside pickup, and that’s labor-intensive stuff. It can take one employee an hour and 15 minutes to shop for one curbside-pickup order.
But it’s absolutely true that those two weeks and even beyond gave us a little shot in the arm in terms of extra cash in the bank. Not a tremendous amount more, and we are nervous about what happens next. That’s the big thing: We along with everybody else are staring at the worst economy since the Great Depression. And how long is that going to last? It’s really hard for me to predict profitability over the course of the pandemic. I’m anxious about it, because there’s so much that can disrupt things going forward.
When you have so many people that are out of work, they have to be very, very careful about what they spend their money on. This gets back to the competitive advantages of larger chains when it comes to pricing. Consumers will respond to that. We couldn’t possibly sell a box of Cheerios or a half-gallon of Breyer’s ice cream for the same price as an outfit of like Walmart.
You’ve made a lot of changes — some you really don’t want to make. Which do you think are here to stay?
I attend a weekly call that the CDC does for grocery stores; it’s a nationwide call every Monday afternoon. And in a past call, one of the scientists was from the FDA, and he hinted that some of the self-service sub-departments might be gone for good, things like hot bars and salad bars and soup stations. The FDA might develop guidelines that says those things aren’t happening any longer. We’d figure it out, but that would be a big permanent change.
I believe that in the near term, at least for the next six months — or really either until there’s a vaccine or some other way that the virus is no longer a general threat — we’re going to have to maintain the six-foot social distance. Which is going to be problematic for a place like us, because we’re going to have to continue with strict customer restrictions. We only let 12 people at a time in our Mount Airy store; we’re used to having 30 or 40 people. That’s not only counter to our culture, but it also suppresses sales.
And curbside pickup and delivery, do you think that’s going to last even after a vaccine?
I think so. Home delivery of groceries was already a growing industry. Instacart, Amazon Prime, and all that, they were already experiencing double-digit growth. I think that will only accelerate. So smaller outfits like the co-op, we need to figure out how to do those things in a sustainable way.
I do home deliveries every day, and when I drop off food, the first thing you do is call the person. And invariably they say, “Oh, thank you so much. I can’t wait to shop again. I can’t wait to get back into the co-op.” And I believe that that’s a true sentiment for a lot of people, but I also think that a lot of other people are thinking, “This is pretty damn convenient. I have a busy life, and if I can get my groceries delivered for a minimum charge, I’m going to.' ”