Local grocers become 'like Amazon Prime' in response to COVID-19

In just a few short weeks, locally-owned grocery stores have overhauled their business models to adapt to physical distancing guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, online orders haven’t made up for lack of foot traffic, store owners say

An employee sanitizes a basket at Vincenzo's in Uptown Waterloo. Co-owner Tony Caccioppoli says online orders have become vastly more popular as more people avoid shopping in-person. (Submitted by Carmine Caccioppoli)

In just a few short weeks, locally-owned grocery stores have overhauled their business models to adapt to physical distancing guidelines.

Delivery and curbside pickup are now king and in-person shopping has dropped down to a fraction of what it used to be.

"It's almost as if we've been forced to become like Amazon Prime overnight," said Tony Caccioppoli, who co-owns Vincenzo's in Uptown Waterloo.

Vincenzo's previously offered online shopping, but Caccioppoli said they might have had a single online order a day. Now, he said, they're getting hundreds.

Meantime, Vincenzo's is only allowing 15 customers in at a time. It's a big change for a store that used to rely heavily on in-person foot traffic, from office workers picking up lunch to regulars who liked to sample the latest cheeses.

"As a business person, you spend most of your time figuring out how to get customers in the store," said Caccioppoli.

"Now, we've had to figure out ways to keep customers out of the store."

'It's a bit overwhelming'

Krista and Bo Gejda are co-owners of Victoria Street Market. Bo Gedja says adapting to a new system of selling groceries has been a challenge. (Jesse Hutchinson)

Bo Gedja, owner of Victoria Street Market in Kitchener, said the store had been in the process of redesigning its website when the pandemic hit and demand for online shopping spiked.

That meant days spent photographing 1,400 different grocery products for the website to get it up and running as quickly as possible. The store also offers email and telephone orders and has stopped offering in-person shopping entirely.

Gedja said they now receive about a hundred online, email and telephone orders a day. Like Caccioppoli, he compared the process to launching an Amazon store.

"It's a bit overwhelming for our staff to totally make that switch," said Gedja.

He added that a lot of hidden manpower goes into filling online orders, from collecting payment to picking out the items and coordinating drop-offs and pick-ups.

"It's just like a whole other business."

'Scrambling' but sales down

Ellin Park, owner of Zero Waste Bulk in Uptown Waterloo, has devised a system of filling online orders using her store's unique space.

Customers order products from her online store and Park packs them up. When people arrive to pick up their products, she leaves them on a shelf in the vestibule outside her store. Once the order is picked up, she sanitizes the shelves and door handles.

It's a lot of work and often occupies Park for most of the day. Still, she said it hasn't made up for the lack of foot traffic in Uptown. 

"Even though we're very busy scrambling to get the orders fulfilled, it's probably less than half of our usual sales," said Park.

Zero Waste Bulk owner Ellin Park says she's been hard at work packing up orders herself. She says she'd like to hire more temporary staff but isn't sure how best to do that during COVID-19. (Submitted by Ellin Park)

Caccioppoli and Gedja say they too have noticed a dip.

"Sales are definitely down from what they would normally expect this time year," said Caccioppoli.

"Our sales are down, but we feel like we're doing the right thing at this time for the community," said Gedja.

Gedja added that he's committed to keeping the store open as an essential service, but has some concerns about how long they can sustain it.

"Our hope is to at least break even and still keep moving along," he said.

As the stores adjust to their new way of doing business, Caccioppoli had some advice:

"I just ask people to be patient," he said. "With other customers and with our staff – keep the physical distance."



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?