Pushing Toward the Light
I think I may see a very faint light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
As I write this, it is the end of April 2020. We have been in the COVID-19 crisis for about seven weeks. The states where we operate our convenience stores are all in some type of shelter-at-home situation. Our stores remain open as essential businesses.
Every day, our store team members go to work to offer products and services to our customers. By doing so, they provide a service to their community, help first responders, and support their families. It takes a great amount of dedication and professionalism to go into the unknown every day.
You know the story. No one expected, let alone planned, for the pandemic that hit our country. We had contingency plans for several different scenarios. Most of them dealt with natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding. Nothing prepared us to deal with a threat that we could not see nor anticipate.
During the first week of March, we pulled our management team together to start discussing the coronavirus situation and how we were going to respond. With that as a starting point, we created a task force to plan and implement our COVID-19 response. The task force met by phone several hours every day to discuss infection developments, health warnings, and strategy. We looked at what had happened, and was happening, in Asia and Europe. I firmly believe our team’s international experience helped us to recognize the potential of the threat.
The main guiding principle we developed was that we were going to stay ahead of the COVID-19 developments. We were not going to wait to be told to do things; we were going to do them when necessity and reality dictated. We knew that we might get out too far ahead and be taking some extreme precautions that others might not implement, but we felt it was worth doing so to protect our team and our customers.
We were one of the first companies to: implement plexiglass sneeze guards at pay points; place social distancing markers in the store; mandate the wearing of masks, gloves and aprons in the store; limit the number of people who could be in the store at one time; increase the frequency and depth of the cleaning program in our stores; and have people who were not feeling well or concerned about getting sick stay home without recrimination.
We are incredibly proud of the men and women who work with us to operate our stores. They understood the necessity of our actions, followed through on the implementation, and maintained our standards — even with customers who did not see the need for such precautions.
We also put into place several means of communications to help keep our team members informed about the situation and what we were doing through regular email newsletters, video, and information on our website. We started a morale survey that goes to each store twice a week to get feedback from our store managers as to how our team members and our customers are feeling, and to let us know what problems they may be having.
Our district managers upped their telephone and video communications with our store managers to check in on them — both from a personal and a business point-of-view to let them know that we appreciate the effort they are putting in.
All this was done while, at the same time, we were keeping the stores open, operating, and as fully stocked as possible during a very chaotic and unstable period.
The fact that we were able to get through the first weeks of this crisis without a major disaster is a testament to the hard work of everyone on the StrasGlobal team. We are incredibly proud and thankful for the dedication and professionalism of our team members.
Did we do everything right? Of course not. In hindsight, we could have done more at the beginning of the crisis to work with our suppliers to make sure we had sufficient quantities of essential products in the store, ordered our PPE earlier when it was still available and reasonably priced, strengthen our ability to communicate with our customers through email and social media, and done a better job of coaching our employees on how to handle customers who did not, and still do not, see the need to wear masks or follow social distancing rules. These are oversights that resulted from the uniqueness and speed of the pandemic.
We will be ready next time — and there will be a next time.
It is often said that you see the real character of a person in difficult times. I think that is true for companies as well. I hope that we, as a company, are measuring up well. Our mission statement is: “To make life better — for our team, our customers, and our clients.” In retrospect, it is this philosophy that motivated our actions. Our first concern was for the health and safety of our team members, followed by the health and safety of our customers, followed by the protection of our clients’ businesses. One thing leads to the other with an outcome that benefits all.
I mentioned at the beginning that I think I see a faint light at the end of the tunnel. I feel that we have finished phase one of this pandemic — the crisis response — and we are now moving into phase two — the transition phase. We are focusing on increasing sales and customer counts in our stores while, at the same time, maintaining our health and safety precautions on a daily basis.
We know that the virus has not disappeared nor will it be going away anytime soon. We, as a country, may have to adjust our lifestyles to live with COVID-19. We, as a retailer, need to be ready to serve that new lifestyle.
To be honest, I don’t know what that new lifestyle will be. I do know it will be the same in some ways as it was six months ago, but I’m not sure how it will be different. My expectation is that customers will start seeing us as a local market again rather than just a snack shop. Curbside delivery, home delivery and contactless payments will all be more important than they have in the past. The economy is going to go through a recession with high unemployment. Gasoline sales will stay low as more people work from home or are jobless. The emphasis on hygiene and infection safety will remain, either through government regulation or customer expectations. The competition with online ordering from the big technology companies, such as Amazon, will be stronger since people have become more reliant on using them, and they will travel less because they are working from home.
We are currently working on our plans to meet the “new” reality. We are not sure what to expect, but we do know we will have to be as flexible and nimble as we were when we first entered the COVID-19 crisis. Now is the time to make the push toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.