Coronavirus forces strained London grocery stores to change the way they do business

Some London grocery stores are changing the way they do business to keep workers and customers from spreading coronavirus amid a widening global outbreak of the disease.

Supermarkets have unwittingly found themselves on the front lines of a pandemic

An unprecedented surge of stockpiling brought on by the coronavirus pandemic left many grocery store shelves bare, including this cleaning products aisle at the Superstore on Hyde Park Road. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

London grocery stores are taking measures to enhance sanitation and maintain their supplies after a wave of unprecedented stockpiling across the city amid the widening global coronavirus outbreak.

Over the weekend anxious shoppers stood in lines that stretched the length of some stores in order to stock up on supplies such as fresh food, canned goods, pet food, milk, toilet paper and cleaning products in a frenzy of panic buying brought on by the pandemic. 

The surge has forced many supermarkets to start rationing high-demand items and begin obsessive cleaning regimens, where employees must regularly sanitize high-touch surfaces, such as shopping carts, checkout lanes and electronic pinpads in order to limit the potential spread of illness. 

The unprecedented situation has unwittingly and perhaps unexpectedly placed many supermarkets and their employees on the front-lines of an unfolding health crisis along with doctors, nurses and other first responders.

Stores are being forced to change how they do business. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"No matter what happens here, the grocery store and the food supply chain won't be shut down," said John Harding, the store manager of Remark Fresh Markets on Hyde Park Road. 

"There's always going to be food available. This hoarding of food has gotten out of control," he said. "We'll be one of the few places open besides the hospitals and the pharmacies." 

Harding said on top of regularly sanitizing check out lanes, shopping carts and any high touch surfaces, his busy west-end store will no longer be able to offer customers free coffee and tea at a self-serve station near the front entrance. 

"We've shut that down, only because you need to touch the cream and the coffee (containers) with your hands," he said.  

Harding said the store has also stopped its self serve stations, where customers would normally get their own soups, or antipasto, opting instead to have employees serve the soup and pre-packaged pickles, olives and sundried tomatoes. 

"With the multiple people and traffic we have through this store, maybe a thousand people can touch a spoon during the course of the day. This just helps that," he said. "Customers don't have to handle the items themselves." 

Harding said employees have been given hand sanitizer and briefed on what the Middlesex London Health Unit is recommending in terms of precautions in order to avoid getting sick. 

If they do feel start feeling unwell, Harding said, employees are encouraged to stay home and self-isolate for 14 days. 

At Sunripe Markets, which has two London locations, the chain has stopped handing out free samples of its fresh-squeezed juices, popcorn, cheeses and fresh produce. 

"We have discontinued all our sampling, which is something we're known for," said Kaysa Willemsen, the chain's marketing and communications manager. 

Sunripe has also added sanitizer stations at all of its entrances and is giving out gloves to any customers who want them. 

"We have plenty of gloves," she said. "You're welcome to use them." 

Willemsen said the supermarket chain is also trying to promote card payments instead of cash in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.

"That's another thing we're trying to eliminate touching," she said. "We're trying to eliminate as much contact and keeping our shelves stocked." 


Colin Butler


Colin Butler covers the environment, real estate, justice as well as urban and rural affairs for CBC News in London, Ont. He is a veteran journalist with 20 years' experience in print, radio and television in seven Canadian cities. You can email him at