(Reuters) – A tall, surgical mask-wearing young man stands at the entrance as customers line up outside. A sign at the door – illustrated with stick figures drawn by the co-owner’s 6-year-old daughter – warns clients they can only come in three at a time.
The notice behind the cash register is starker: “Treat your visit as if it’s risking lives.”
A day spent at Each Peach Market – a boutique mini-mart in Northwest Washington’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood near the National Zoo – offers a glimpse into how grocery shopping is changing in response to the coronavirus outbreak that has upended routines around the world.
The small store has gone cashless to avoid handling potentially virus-carrying bills. The PIN pad where customers enter their debit card codes is regularly wiped down with disinfectant. Increasingly, customers are emailing in their orders and picking up bulging brown bags of groceries at the curb.
Money is flowing in – co-founder Emily Friedberg said the store was earning more this year than at the same time in 2019 despite cutting its hours in half.
But conversations with both shoppers and shopkeepers indicate that the virus isn’t just changing how Americans shop for their meals – it’s changing the food they shop for too.
CRAZY AMOUNTS OF CHICKEN
Each Peach is an upscale grocery store in a gentrified corner of one of the richest cities in America, with a product range that includes pumpkin gnocchi and Patagonian sea salt.
But, even here, people are sticking to the basics.
“The buying patterns have changed,” said Friedberg. Out: exotic vegetables, fancy cheeses and indulgent chocolates. In: long-life pantry items, flour and yeast, and unpretentious cuts of meat.
“People are buying crazy amounts of chicken,” she said.
Customers tended to agree.
“I think there’s a lot of comfort eating going on,” said a mask-wearing Leena Higgins, waiting outside while her husband shopped indoors.
Those preferences are rippling through the supply chain. Each Peach employees said shoppers would likely see less in the way of fiddlehead ferns and more of the standard onions-carrots-and-broccoli fare.
“I’ve had 10 types of pepper in the store,” said Eva Steinberg, the store’s produce buyer. “I don’t think that’s going to happen this year.”
Ditto with dairy, she suggested.
Cheeses that could easily be thrown over a pasta or into a sandwich were selling briskly – “We’re going through insane amounts of your block of orange cheddar,” she said – but those that couldn’t, like the blue-veined Cambozola, less so.
Impulse buys are waning.
The dozen bags of oversize hazelnut-swirl or vegan oatmeal-and-chocolate chip cookies across from the register would typically have to be replenished at the end of each day, said Head Buyer Chris Weybright. Now they sit untouched.
Customers are still grappling with social distancing rules as they reach for their onions and cheddar. Some slipped on high-grade N95 masks when they went inside. Others popped in for a baguette or a bunch of bananas without bothering to take advantage of the free latex gloves available at the entrance.
Steinberg – who has had to isolate herself from her roommates because of her job – said that while shoppers knew the risks involved with frequent trips to the store, some were finding old habits hard to break.
“They’re coming here each day and buying maybe two items,” she said. “It’s this weird cognitive dissonance.”
Friedberg, the co-founder, said she and her two dozen employees were considering other changes to make the store safer: maybe removing an aisle to give shoppers more space, or putting furniture in front of the register so that customers would have to stand further from the cashier when paying.
Those changes can be reversed once the outbreak dissipates. Experts, however, think it may be harder for buying habits and supply chains to bounce back to normal.
Another thing that’s changed: Head Buyer Weybright’s appreciation for the importance of safely getting food to people’s tables.
“This job has always been meaningful,” he said. “Now there’s a certain responsibility to it.”
Reporting by Raphael Satter; editing by Jonathan Oatis