As we approach month eight of the pandemic, retailers have had some time to respond and adapt to the changing climate. Just as we settle into the “new normal,” a new curveball is around the corner: navigating the holiday season during a pandemic.
Kerri Williams, VV’s resident Merchandiser, sits down (virtually, of course) with General Manager Abby Ellis and Produce Manager Roger Burleigh from Elroy’s Fine Foods to discuss holiday planning. Elroy’s Fine Foods is a 6,000 square foot store (including the backroom) in Monterey, California.
Kerri: We’re here to talk about holiday planning and see what you have going on. This is your first big holiday. What are some of your projections or expectations for the holiday?
Abby: One of the challenges is our expectations. We don’t really have a forecast. We’re trying not to be too conservative with our orders so that we are abundant but also trying to make sure that we don’t end up with a backlog of product at the end of the season.
Roger: That’s not factoring in all the changes that we’ve had to deal with in terms of Covid and how that’s going to change buying patterns etc. We try and keep tabs on what those buying patterns are and what their projections are looking like in terms of smaller basket sizes but more frequent shopping trips.
Abby: Roger and I have both worked in grocery but in different areas of the country. This year is just totally different than any other so even our experience won’t really be helping us this year.
Kerri: Are there any particular seasonal challenges that you’re running up against like storage or securing supply?
Abby: Storage is definitely an issue for us as a small store. We have one walk-in for grocery, produce, beer and wine so we’re going to get an external refrigerator outside for our turkeys and some of our grocery overflow.
Roger: Our walk-in is jam packed on a Friday, Saturday with produce as is so we’re going to need that extra unit. In terms of the produce department in particular, one of the challenges that we’re facing is that we just had a frost in many parts of California. We try and source from local farms wherever possible.
For products like French green beans and Brussels sprouts and some of the less hardy product–we want to source local, but it really all depends on weather and whether the farms can give us the volume that we need. But I feel very confident that we have the right service supply chain partners regardless of whether we’re able to source locally or not. We will have those staple products in some way, shape or form in our store.
Kerri: Awesome. Did you have a holiday reset in the department or the store?
Roger: We moved all our various squash and hard squash selection right front center. We have some kind off the beaten path varieties that some of the farms grow. We added some in-season tropical fruit as well as chestnuts and walnuts. We bolstered up our apple selection so there are quite a few changes that have been made. And as citrus comes more into season, we’ll start to shift those to more front and center as well.
Kerri: Since you work at a small store, what are your plans for maintaining social distancing or crowd control? Is that something that you need to deal with?
Abby: We start controlling traffic based on when there’s congestion in the store rather than having a set head count so it gives us a little more flexibility. It’s more realistic that people aren’t all in the produce department at the same time. We’re also going to have our turkey and pre-order meal check-in outside and that will hopefully alleviate some of the indoor traffic too.
Kerri: Nice. Do you have any information or advice you would like to offer to new stores or smaller stores going into Thanksgiving season?
Roger: I have two pieces of advice. This coming from my former background as a buyer for a different store. Get to know what the ordering cycles are from particular vendors. One of the challenges that we face, not necessarily in produce but in grocery, is that we missed many of the deadlines for pre-orders for things like canned pumpkin. I think that you just need to work to have a plan much further out on what your product mix is going to be and what you would like it to be and then figure out what the order cycles are on that.
The second piece of advice is to coordinate with your kitchen. One thing I’ve started doing is taking orders from our kitchen, which does a couple things. It allows me to have the freshest product out on the floor because I can cycle through any stale product. Older product ends up being becoming delicious prepared foods. It also allows us to combine volume and get price breaks on certain products that benefit both departments. It’s down to the dollars and cents.
Kerri: That sounds like a great plan. Awesome, well thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit down and talk with me!