Coronavirus crisis: How to grocery shop safely during COVID-19 outbreak

The government should enforce shopping discipline, make shopping/selling guidelines for local retailers, train them on sanitisation, avoid close contacts and facilitate digital payments and home deliveries

Retailers should prioritise safety, awareness, discipline, service and empathy over their businesses Retailers should prioritise safety, awareness, discipline, service and empathy over their businesses

 I am writing this article at a time when half of the world is in self-lockdown mode. Governments across the world are issuing advisories and taking strict preventive measures to ensure people do not come out of their houses and the chain of coronavirus spread is broken.

According to some media reports, the majority of people are preferring to stay indoors, however, shopping for essentials may be the single most urgent task (other than healthcare) which will force people to do the misadventure of leaving their homes and enhance the risk of possible contacts with the infected.

Many governments, charity, social service organisations as well as corporates are involved at this crucial time to distribute food, medicines, and other essential commodities to people through home delivery modes.

While direct-to-door delivery in western countries is comparatively easy because of a few reasons such as the existence of zip postal codes, technology, structure/architecture/town plan of the cities, government databases of households, etc., the last-mile distribution in India is particularly complicated.

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The majority of India still thrives on Kirana or Mom and Pop stores (unorganised retail), whose network is scattered, inside gali, mohallas and are operating without any specific guidelines or standard operating procedures.

This may yield catastrophic consequences as shopkeepers may act as the new transporters of the novel coronavirus. Understand my argument from the fact that recently in Delhi, a woman, before getting tested positive, infected a doctor of a Mohalla clinic after which some 900 people are at risk of the community spread and under surveillance due to close contact with COVID-19 positive doctor.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), close contact may be under 6 feet of distance from the infected person with more than 10 mins of exposure.

An average shopkeeper interacts with a lot of customers on a day-to-day basis flouting these guidelines. In India, there are more than 12 million mom and pop stores, the majority of which sell food (grocery) and are open.

Hence, it may be of utmost importance for governments to frame shopping-related guidelines and assume the fact that after a few days (once people's bulk inventory as a result of phase one panic buying will deplete), citizens will resume shopping expeditions once again to buy essentials.

Here are some tips and best practices which other nations/retailers/communities are following to avoid these unwanted situations:-

1. Open stores for longer hours

This spreads the store traffic and hence prevents crowd building. Governments/shopkeepers/local agencies must make a list of stores in every locality, note their operational hours and advertise them publicly to keep people informed about it.

2. Avoid closed spaces

Some recent studies point out that novel coronavirus may be airborne for up to a few hours before it settles down. In closed environments such as retail stores (which have fans and ACs), if an infected person enters, sneezes and leaves, anyone entering the premises for many hours after him/her will stand the chance of inhaling the floating virus and get infected.

Retailers in Europe are putting essentials outside stores in open spaces so that such mass spread may be avoided. Similarly, in rural India, weekly haats/bazaars may be organised in bigger fields with considerable distance among shoppers to avoid close contacts. In cities, school/college grounds may offer such desired vast spaces.

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3. Chit based/shopping list-based buying

Many apartments in metro cities have already initiated this where citizens are giving their requirements in the form of a chit (parchi) or shopping list with their mobile numbers/house address/flat numbers mentioned on it. They collect it in lean hours and avoid crowd building. This practice may be enforced by local administrations in their respective areas to reduce man to man contacts.

4. Billing is most vulnerable

Billing at the point of sale (POS) or cash counter is the most vulnerable activity during an epidemic of this kind because both the shopper and the cashier are in close contact. Also in Kirana stores, owners themselves are the cashiers who handle the products and currencies with the same hands, enhancing the chances of virus spread. The process may be altered with (1.) not taking the change back, (2.) use of digital payments, (3.) taking credit and paying in bulk. In any case close contact must be avoided by paying and taking product delivery from a distance.

5. Categorise shoppers and provide dedicated shopping hours

Supermarket giant Sainsbury's in the UK now has dedicated shopping hours for elderly people, medical service families, youths and so on. According to a study published by the CDC, 50% of the close contacts of the first 10 confirmed cases in the US were medical professionals out of which 12% of the close contacts developed symptoms in the 14 days of active symptom monitoring period. The study proves that medical professionals (including doctors, nurses, duty staff, ambulance drivers and their family members) are more vulnerable groups and hence the distribution of essentials to their families has to be prioritised as well as differentiated. Similarly, elderly shoppers or people with medical conditions should have separate shopping hours.

6. Only essentials and less than three

Except for food and essentials such as toiletries, bath and personal hygiene etc., all other shopping should be avoided to release pressure on the backward supply chain as well as reduce the involvement of the shopkeepers and store personnel. Also, retailers should put a cap on the amount to avoid frequent stockouts.

7. Role of corporates

It is high time for companies such as Uber, Ola, Zomato, Swiggy to assist local administrations to manage doorstep deliveries, courier and logistics companies, airline companies to assist in the back-end logistics and cargo and organised food retailers such as Big Bazaar, Big basket, Reliance, etc. to provide warehousing and shopping services in cities and suburbs. For villages, the involvement of post offices, banks, cooperatives, sahakari and bazaar samitis, local businessmen, etc. is important to facilitate non-stop flow of essentials to households so that people don't rampantly move out during community spread and mass spread phases. Organised retailers/corporates can do handholding of unorganised retailers on sanitisation, awareness, close contact avoidance, screening and health as well as safety measures.

8. Drop off deliveries

Members of local Cooperatives/societies/youth clubs/communities may be identified, involved and trained to facilitate shop-to-home drop-offs avoiding close contacts. If 100 untrained homeowners visit a store or if one trained delivery personnel visits 100 houses and leaves the packet outside, the risk is comparatively lesser in the latter case. Such delivery personnel should be screened on a daily basis and should be extra cautious from getting infected.

To summarise, shoppers should be vigilant as shopping is no longer a leisure activity. They should minimise shopping frequencies, do shopping pooling (similar to car-pooling), do rationing, avoid close contacts, use protective gears such as masks and sanitisers, avoid sending kids and the elderly, restrict shopping expeditions.

The government should enforce shopping discipline, make shopping/selling guidelines for local retailers, train them on sanitisation, avoid close contacts and facilitate digital payments and home deliveries. Retailers should prioritise safety, awareness, discipline, service and empathy over their businesses.

(The author is an Assistant Professor of Retailing and Marketing at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Bhubaneswar.)