OPINIONCompany News

Could Self-Serve Be History?

What will the ‘new normal’ look like in c-stores?
self serve
Photograph: Shutterstock

CHICAGO — As operators across platforms struggle through the COVID 19-induced retail apocalypse, some are contemplating a new environment not dissimilar to that of airport security after it was overhauled in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In everything from intensified scrutiny of supply-chain logistics to customer-retailer interactions, the shopping experience will transform in ways never imagined, including changes that could prompt patrons to long for the unrestricted experience that came to an end just weeks ago.

Already, mass merchants and grocers, from Walmart to Kroger, Giant Eagle, Publix and Albertsons, are installing plexiglass dividers—also known as “sneeze guards”—to checkout lanes.

“We are not wavering in our commitment to providing an unparalleled guest service or a future free of single-use plastics, but rather are asking our guests to take this opportunity to help us promote the safest shopping experience possible,” said Dan Donovan, spokesperson for Giant Eagle, a privately held Pennsylvania-based operator of 460 self-named supermarkets and GetGo c-stores, which this week outlined several new pro-sanitization steps, including the temporary banning of reusable bags in stores.

According to analysts, brokers and retailers, there will be at least three tiers of measures for the short term that potentially could be permanent as a way of reducing the spread of germs. Simple steps will include:

  • Free in-store hand-sanitizers and wipes available for customers upon entry.
  • Store associates, in addition to those currently manning foodservice, wearing sanitation gloves.
  • Wiping down the checkout counter more frequently.
social distancing

Moderate steps will include:

  • Social spacing. Several chains, including many major grocers, are placing floor indicators and signage at checkout lanes, visually indicating appropriate social distance between guests.
  • Adding staff dedicated to disinfecting common store touch points, including coffee bars, in-store seating, foodservice equipment and counters, cold vault doors and handles, in-store fixtures and fuel dispensers on the forecourt.

But there’s more, and this is where the experience may most dramatically change.

As many companies have for the moment discontinued self-serve coffee and bakery and doughnut cases, questions are arising about whether the era of self-serve foodservice—a critical distinction for the convenience channel, with its roller grills, muffin warmers, hot and cold dispensed beverages, soup bars and bakery displays—could be history. 

Interviews with several industry retail executives reflect both areas of common ground and differences. Some chains are privately suggesting they will discontinue all unwrapped baked items and may consider sneeze guards or plexiglass dividers for roller grills and dispensed beverages. At least two chains have or are considering making roller grill full-service.

No one interviewed, however, was prepared to suggest doing away with self-serve entirely.

“We have stopped almost all self-serve products [for now],” said an executive of a top 20 chain who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Coffee is being poured and prepped behind the counter and the fountain machines are turned off. We do not have any unwrapped bakery. Our roller grills have always been behind the counter.”

The chain benefits from having drive-thrus at many of its locations and self-scanning chainwide, and it is now looking to expand curbside pickup, currently available at 25 locations. “We have the infrastructure to do curbside at about half of our stores, so if this thing gets worse, we could keep two-thirds of our stores open by using drive-thru and curbside,” he said.

Asked which steps relative to self-serve foodservice could permanently change, the executive said: “Too early to predict permanent changes. The problem with coffee and fountain is the manhandling of cups and lids. Also, it is impossible to wipe off spigots after every use. 

“I agree on the self-serve food,” he said. “That is why we have always had our roller grills behind the counter. We may reconsider unwrapped bakery in the future.”

As for coffee and fountain, he said, “I think [they] will come back [as self-serve] but not until this thing slows down.”

An executive of a top 10 chain said it too had shut down bakery cases and self-serve coffee, and store associates are frequently wiping down counters and equipment. Whether this continues long term is an open question.

“We’re talking about this right now: What will the customers’ expectations be relative to food safety and feeling safe in our stores? My guess is [we’ll] wrap our baked items, [and] we may make some adjustments with the condiment bar to space people out a bit more. Beyond that, we’ll have to figure what makes sense and what the customer is going to expect," the executive said.

A third retail executive said he started taking proactive measures in late January, when news of the first cases of coronavirus occurred in China. “We ordered extra hand sanitizers in all of our stores [for customers] way before anyone in the U.S. was talking about this,” he said.

A Return to Normal?

The question, the executive said, is what should be considered emergency measures vs. what should become permanent best practices.

“What you do in a fire is different than when you’re able to pull back and gain perspective,” he said. “My focus is on the hand. If your hand is directly in contact with food, then that food needs to be packaged to restrict the spread of germs. For instance, doughnuts were prepackaged early with the coronavirus, and that is something we may continue. Our hot dogs were never exposed, and we’ve always used sneeze guards.

“When I consider moving self-serve coffee to behind the counter, the question is: Does it make sense requiring someone to move from touching a spigot to get his coffee to now either having to touch a screen that others are also touching to place an order? Or if I require the customer to have to order a coffee from a barista, then you have the customer’s hand touching the hand of the store associate, and we haven’t even talked about condiments and lids. So I’m not sure how much good we really accomplish here.”

For quick-service restaurants and c-stores, veteran food and tobacco analyst Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets, New York, expects an approach to prevail that balances greater attention to cleanliness with customer expectations for speed and self-control.

“Institutional memory is short,” Modi said, citing Coca-Cola Freestyle machines popular in many QSR and convenience sites. “No one wants someone standing there doing it for you. … I think it will be a slow transition” but we will get back to a modified normalcy, he said.

Mitch Morrison is vice president of retailer relations for Winsight Media. Reach him at mmorrison@winsightmedia.com.

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