Home delivery in high demand at P.E.I.'s country stores during COVID-19 pandemic

P.E.I.'s local grocers are seeing big changes in customers' shopping habits as Islanders self-isolate.

'We're doing summertime volume right now'

Otis Butler and daughter Jennifer mind the store in Murray Harbour. Concern over COVID-19 has stoked 'summertime volume' in sales, according to Butler. But demand is not just for groceries. (Butler's Grocery and Hardware)

P.E.I.'s local grocers are seeing big changes in customers' shopping habits as Islanders self-isolate.

And the old-style values and service of small-town general stores are helping stressed out residents get through the ordeal.

At Clow's Red and White in Hampshire, they've brought back a service they haven't offered in decades: home delivery.

"We've gone from none to a lot," said Norman Clow, owner. "When I was 16, I used to do deliveries around the countryside. It took something like this for people to actually start using phone-in orders."

Unlike national supermarket chains, Clow has no online click-and-choose shopping option. Instead, customers phone him up and talk to a real person. These days, that's not a bad thing.

"One lady, she started getting a little choked up," said Clow. "I just try and keep people happy."

New faces are appearing in Clow's store. He figures folks who normally shop in town are now coming to him for the first time. Like just about everybody, they're in search of cleaning products, wipes — even staples like flour and yeast.

In general, people are spending more and walking out of the store with bigger purchases, according to Clow.

"Hopefully that leads to further business down the road when this all gets settled out."

Butler's sign puts a local spin on social distancing. (Butler's Grocery and Hardware)

In Murray Harbour, Butler's Grocery and Hardware is always the go-to spot for a quick bite, a bag of groceries or a needed bit of hardware. COVID-19 has flipped seasonal sales on its head.

"We're doing summertime volume right now," said co-owner Otis Butler, who runs the store with wife Linda and daughter Jennifer.  As an agency liquor store, sales of alcohol are stronger than normal, according to Butler. His staffing levels have shifted to summertime peaks, too.

And a big seller in the hardware aisle: paint.

"There are a lot of people doing little fix-ups at home," said Butler. "They've got the time."

'The supply chain is overwhelmed'

In the grocery aisles, basics like sugar, pasta and ground beef are moving fast. Butler senses a change in people's eating habits. They're preparing more meals at home, and skipping the pre-packaged stuff.

"Your grab-and-go items, they're not as quick on that," said Butler. "Not as many workers down in this area so our sandwich counter is down."

Norman Clow is seeing new faces in his store in Hampshire. He's also getting out more too, making home deliveries to customers in self-isolation. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Butler and Clow both report some shortages among the wholesalers who supply them with goods.

"The supply chain is overwhelmed," said Clow. "We've been short a couple of things from them but that's to be expected … They do a fairly good job delivering to us."

'They're not overspending'

Talk among fishermen who come by the Murray Harbour store is often about what lies ahead.

"They're talking more right now about whether they're going to actually have a lobster season," said Butler. "That seems to be their concern."

"And so that's reflected in their pocketbook because they're not overspending."

Fewer of Butler's elderly customers are coming through the door these days. He believes they're staying home to protect their health. Sons and daughters are getting the groceries instead.

"There certainly is apprehension," said Butler. "People are keeping their distance." 

The sign outside Butler's store puts a local spin on physical distancing:  "Keep your berth at least a fathom."

The tongue-in-cheek advice has been a minor hit in the tight-knit community.

"I thought it would get a few smiles," said Butler. "If there's one thing we can do, small stores give people hope."

More from CBC P.E.I.


Brian Higgins


Brian Higgins joined CBC Prince Edward Island in 2002, following work in broadcasting and print journalism in central Canada. He follows law courts and justice issues on P.E.I., among other assignments.


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