Everything You Need to Know About Shopping for Holiday Groceries Safely This Year
We wish we could say otherwise, but not much has changed, pandemic-wise, since we first started reporting on grocery shopping safety measures back in March. In fact, the nationwide impact of COVID-19 has only gotten more widespread, with positive upticks now occurring again in nearly every single state. Just this week, Dr. Fauci said that the U.S. might not experience some “semblance of normality” until 2022. (Help.)
Despite whatever “pandemic fatigue” people may be experiencing, advice from health experts remains the same: Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Social distance when possible. Avoid enclosed public spaces. Stay home. Without a widely available, effective vaccine, there’s not much else we can do to prevent transmission of this highly contagious, airborne virus.
But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few months, it’s that it’s impossible for everyone to stay home 24/7 — especially when it comes to shopping for household essentials, like groceries, to feed ourselves and our families. And with the year’s biggest holidays coming up (and imminent concerns of a second wave of stay-at-home orders), Americans have lots of questions. What does safe shopping look like these days — all these months later? Will shelves empty out again as people worry about a second wave? Are shoppers going to crowd supermarkets with the same frenzied fervor that usually marks this time of year? Here, we answer all those questions and more.
How to Safely Grocery Shop This Holiday Season, According to a Microbiologist
According to our recent Kitchn Money Survey, 75 percent of our readers are still shopping for groceries predominantly in-stores, which is why we feel that a reminder to take extra precautions is so important. To mentally and physically prepare for the holiday grocery shopping experience in 2020, we reached out to Dr. Donald Schaffner, a Food Microbiologist at Rutgers University who specializes in quantitative microbial risk assessment, predictive food microbiology, hand-washing, and cross-contamination (read: some very important areas of expertise these days!).
This might be fairly tricky, but Dr. Schaffner recommends that you “plan your shopping trip for when you think the store might be as least busy as possible.” Luckily, we do have a great tip for figuring that out.
Related: The Super-Easy Way to Figure Out When Your Grocery Store Is the Least Busy
In addition to making off-peak grocery runs when possible, Schaffner recommends masking up, of course. “Definitely patronize stores that have a firm mask policy and do not allow unmasked shoppers.” If you don’t see signs on the doors/out front saying that shoppers must be masked, consider shopping somewhere else.
When you’re in the store, if there’s a crowd of people around, say, the turkey freezer bin, wait for it to dissipate before moving in. Maybe you won’t get a turkey (it’s okay, we’ve got other ideas for you!), but you’ll also be less likely to contract the virus.
For those who are wondering whether or not we still need to wipe down our groceries with disinfectant, Dr. Schaffner clears the air: “We know that the real risk of getting the virus comes from people, and not from food or surfaces, so it’s not necessary to sanitize your groceries.”
That’s not to say that we should stop sanitizing ourselves, however. “You can keep a bottle of hand sanitizer in your car, and sanitize your hands after shopping, and then after you get home and put your groceries away, wash your hands or sanitize again. That should manage any risk of cross-contamination.”
Will There Be Grocery Shortages Like We Saw Months Ago?
With dropping temperatures, a second wave of COVID on the horizon, and the holidays around the corner, consumers are once again flocking to grocery stores in droves. Shoppers still haven’t forgotten about the panic-inducing shortages and rationing of this past spring (of items like toilet paper, flour, dried goods, meat, etc.). As the concern of potentially empty shelves looms over this holiday season, one question remains: Will it be as bad as it was before?
Grocery store supply companies are vowing to never have a repeat of spring 2020 again. According to Chris Testa, president of grocery wholesaler United Natural Foods Inc., they started preparing for holiday shopping patterns in June. “That’s earlier than we ever have,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
This earlier planning means ramped-up production, and increased orders of popular items like canned cranberry sauce, cold remedies, teas, turkeys, and hams, to be prepared for a holiday rush. “We will never again operate our business as unprepared for something like this,” said Darin Peirce, vice president of retail operations for Associated Food Stores, in that same story for The Wall Street Journal.
While the grocery industry is doing its best to assuage fears of shortages, the best plan is to be prepared, shop early, and be a mindful shopper. (Meaning: Don’t buy every single box of cornbread mix you find. Deal?)
How Are Grocery Retailers Planning to Keep People Safe During the Busiest Time of the Year?
We checked in with some of the most popular grocery stores to see what they’ve been doing, what they will be doing, and what shoppers can expect.
Aldi’s holiday shopping safety plan isn’t drastically different from how things have looked throughout the pandemic thus far.
“Customers and employees are required to wear masks or face coverings, we’ve installed signage and floor decals to remind our employees and customers to maintain a safe distance — at least six feet — from one another, have intensified cleanings throughout our stores, are providing self-service cart wipe stations where shoppers can sanitize carts prior to shopping, and have made hand sanitizing stations available for shoppers and employees,” a rep told us.
Also, keep an eye out to see if Aldi’s expanded pick-up and delivery options are available at a location near you. The store has recently expanded contactless shopping options and now offers grocery delivery in more than 10,000 ZIP codes across the country as well as curbside grocery pick-up at nearly 700 locations.
Leading up to the holidays, the store will continue to offer special senior shopping hours (which vary by location) for those ages 60 and older and for those with disabilities or who are immunocompromised.
Earlier in the pandemic, Costco implemented limits on certain items to minimize shortages and ensure that shoppers can find everything they need. That will also remain in effect.
In mid-November, Hy-Vee will be rolling out a new automated cart sanitation system called “The Sterile Cart System,” which uses a “low pressure spray system and a dry-in-place disinfectant.” Pandemic or not, this is something we’d love to see implemented at all grocery stores across the country. Who’s with us?
According to Laurentia Romaniuk, trends expert at Instacart, “the two weeks leading up to both Thanksgiving and Christmas are typically the busiest, with the biggest spike in online orders taking place on either the Sunday or Monday before each holiday.”
If you’re planning on placing an order, beware of potential difficulties in acquiring a time slot. “Because order volume has been much higher this year, we expect the upcoming holidays to be even busier than past years with more and more people choosing to shop online in order to limit exposure and stay safe.”
The service is prioritizing not only the safety of those ordering, but also the Instacart personal shoppers who enter stores as well. “For safety reasons, we ask all shoppers and customers to wear face masks at the time of delivery. In the spirit of social distancing, customers can also select ‘Leave at My Door Delivery,’ which notifies their shopper to leave the groceries at the front door for contactless delivery,” said Romaniuk.
“We anticipate high demand for our fresh holiday offerings and e-commerce services throughout the holiday season,” a Kroger spokesperson told us.
“To accommodate for this increase, we’ve expanded the time slots available to our pick-up and delivery customers. We have also waived our pick-up fee nationwide (a value of $4.95), with no minimum order threshold to provide additional value to customers choosing this no-contact option.”
For in-store shoppers, the store has implemented more than 30 policy and process changes since March, with employee and shopper safety in mind. That includes mask requirements, plastic partitions, floor decals, contactless pay methods, and 50 percent store capacity limits.
As of last week, Kroger Health announced the launch of rapid antibody testing across their pharmacies. According to a spokesperson, “Kroger is the first U.S. retailer to offer this testing service to customers.”
“In anticipation of increased holiday shopping, Sprouts has invested additional labor hours into stores to allow for more frequent cleaning, paying close attention to high-touch areas, in addition to regular food safety and cleaning procedures. Stores are also implementing steps to promote social distancing and have installed plexiglass barriers at registers to add protection for team members and customers,” Sprouts spokesperson, Kalia Pang, told us.
Sprouts is also making it easy to actively not shop in their stores. “Sprouts stores nationwide are offering pre-ordering, curbside pick-up, and delivery of holiday meats, including Natural and Organic Turkeys, USDA Choice Roasts, and Spiral Sliced Hams, and fully prepared meals along with thousands of cooking essentials for anyone signed into a Sprouts account,” said Pang.
Target recently announced enhanced safety measures in time for an expected influx of holiday shoppers. The retailer (which sells lots of groceries!) now offers contactless in-store payment within the Target app, and also has a website that tracks how long the lines are at your local store. Shoppers can reserve a spot online and sign up for a text notification when it’s their turn to enter the store. For those who use Target’s Drive Up service, the store is doubling the number of dedicated parking spots.
According to Walmart spokesperson, Tara House, the store anticipates patterns to shift to online shopping this year. “To accommodate, we’ve decided to staff up our eCommerce fulfillment network by hiring 20,000 seasonal associates and we’ve successfully scaled our tech infrastructure to manage the increased online transaction volume we anticipate for holiday shopping.”
For those who plan to shop in-store, “we’re continuing to limit the number of customers who can be in store at once, allowing no more than 20 percent of a store’s capacity. Our associates will be monitoring for in-store congestion to ensure proper social distancing measures are accommodated,” says House.
Whole Foods Market
A Whole Foods Market spokesperson recommends that shoppers make careful holiday shopping plans as far in advance as possible this year. They’re incentivizing thinking ahead with special sale prices for early birds.
“We recommend visiting our stores at least five to seven days in advance. Not only will this help you avoid long lines, it also reduces your chances of not being able to find key ingredients during a later shopping trip.”
However you plan to do your holiday grocery shopping this year, we ask that you plan ahead, listen to the experts, and not only consider the health and safety of yourself, but also the health and safety of others.
How are you planning to get holiday groceries this year?