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Northern supermarkets face retail challenges of pandemic

Supermarkets in small communities across the NWT are facing the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic with their own product policies and safety measures. 

Even before the first case of coronavirus was reported in the NWT, the Kaeser’s Store in Fort Smith has been vigilant in trying to stop the spread of the virus.

“We have asked the customers to come shopping by themselves and not in groups or families. We've asked for individual shopping,” store manager Nick Kaeser told News/North.

Supermarkets in small communities across the NWT have implemented several safety measures and product rules to avoid shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Sheila Champion

His shop removed many of its shopping carts to limit the number of customers who could be inside at one time, and staff disinfect the cart handles after each customer is done with them. 

“I’ve also limited the number of staff who are in the office at any one time. We've reduced hours. Most of the customers have been really receptive to what I’ve been doing,” Kaeser said. 

Like other supermarkets in the NWT, Kaeser’s is facing product shortages but not necessarily as a result of panic-buying by customers, as seen in other stores. 

The manager said the supply lines have been strained, there have been delays in groceries reaching the warehouses and availability of some products is more sporadic than before. 

“One truck didn't have our meat but the next one did. Theoretically we're one truck behind,” Kaeser said.

As a strategy, Kaeser explained that he has been following the news of the pandemic for a few months and has anticipated shortages.

“I’ve been buying a lot more quantity than I normally did and having in-store features. I was attempting to stock up peoples' houses with the items I knew would be going until the rush came on. I've never run out of toilet paper. I've done that with bulk food too. My whole game plan was to stock up peoples' houses without them knowing they were stocking up,” he said. 

“There's a lot of product missing – don't get me wrong. But it's going quite well.”

NorthMart and Northern Stores

Some outlets of the NorthMart and Northern Stores have experienced shortages of products but haven’t yet run out of essential food items. 

“We're stocked fully because of the winter road. My concern is if this continues we might run out if the barge arrives, in a worst case scenario where people start panic shopping. But we have quite a bit of stock right now so im not too concerned,” said Peter Jirjis, manger of the Northern Store in Norman Wells. 

Unlike elsewhere, Jirjis shop has not even run out of toilet paper.

At the Northmart in Hay River, stock levels have been restored after customers slowed down their shopping activity. 

“We have toilet paper now, we didn't before,” said manager Darryl Proulx. 

“Because we're a hub we get customers from Simpson, Fort Resolution, Fort Providence, even some from Alberta. Some First Nations are coming to stock up for their Elders. I’ll give them what I can but it's really hard now to get product because the company is telling us to not go crazy on our orders because then other stores won’t be able to get it,” he said. 

The Fort Smith outlet announced in a social media post that on Friday it was offering exclusive shopping hours for seniors and Elders from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“Beginning March 30, we will make our store available to first responders and their spouses from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m,” the post said.

The Northern Stores are also installing plexiglass shields in front of priority checkout counters and other areas in the shops where there are high amounts of staff and customer interaction, according to a news release from parent company The North West Company. 

“We expect to receive delivery of the units in the next few days and will commence installation shortly thereafter in all stores. This added protection will help to enhance the safety of our employees,” said company president Alex Yeo. 

Heightened sanitization in the stores and social distancing measures of visual indicators to keep 2 metres of space between customers  have been introduced, Yeo said. 

Front-line staff have also received a temporary, $2 an hour pay rise retroactive to March 8 in recognition of their work during the pandemic. That increase will be effective until April 4 and Yeo said the company is “committed to extending this temporary pay increase as needed.”