“It’s been chaos; it’s just nuts,” said Cowley’s Piggly Wiggly owner Angie Cowley. She and her husband, Jason, both of Milton, have operated the Milton store for 19 years and the Edgerton store for five, but this is uncharted territory, she said.
Since the spread of COVID-19 and the rush by all nations, including the US, to contain it, a “new normal” has spread across the world, and it’s evident at Milton’s only grocery store.
Lots of things are new, Angie said, starting with new store hours. While the store will stay open daily from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. (starting Sunday, March 22), the first hour, 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., is reserved for shoppers over the age of 60, pregnant women and customers with underlying conditions that could make them more susceptible to extreme COVID-19 illness.
The first hour is reserved for them so they can be the first to shop after the store has been cleaned and sanitized, Angie said.
While she hopes customers can abide by the set-aside morning hour, no one will be turned away, she said.
New cart cleaning station
Also new, upon arrival at the store in the vestibule where shopping carts are kept, there was an area with sanitary wipes so customers could clean the handles of their carts and baskets. The wipes kept disappearing from the cleaning station, Angie said, so a new cart and basket cleaning area was created inside the store in front of the express lane. Customers will find a spray bottle of solution and wiping supplies to clean their carts.
New payment protocols
New again is the way customers and cashiers interact at the checkout counter. Cashiers have been offered gloves because money passes through so many hands, Angie said, and those with Pig cards are asked to read the numbers to the cashier or request that the cashier look the account up using a phone number rather than handing the card to the cashier. Preferred methods of payment are credit and debit cards because they do not need to pass between customer and cashier, Angie said.
“We will still take cash or checks. We will do whatever the customer needs. The hope is to limit the exchange of items,” she said.
No bags from home, please!
Customers are also being asked not to bring their own shopping bags from home, but instead, for now, use the paper or plastic bags offered at the store. For those products, it’s a first-time use, Angie said, lessening the potential for transmitting disease. Angie said she respects her customers’ commitment to waste-reducing practices. The store will once again use customers’ bags “when things return to normal,” she said.
From warehouse to store
Within the store, quantities on shelves ebb and flow. Angie explained the supply system and how that affects inventory.
A central warehouse supplies products to the Cowleys’ stores, Angie said. The Milton store receives a shipment from the warehouse three days a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Under normal circumstances, she said, the Milton store orders between 400 and 500 pieces per load. Using last Wednesday as an example, she said, the store ordered 2,400 pieces to keep up with customer demand. Of the pieces ordered they received 1,200.
More trucks are needed to deliver the increases in orders, and while the warehouse has been keeping to the weekly schedule, trucks have been coming in late, Angie said.
“Normally, they would be here around 11 a.m. or noon. On Wednesday, they came at 8 o’clock at night.
“We asked our employees if they would go home and come back again to stock the shelves.
“They did. Everybody is awesome,” she said.
On Friday, the store buzzed with shoppers and most shelves were relatively full.
“We are living load-by-load,” Angie said.
Some products are limited
Some items in the store are being limited. Toilet paper is limited to one package per person per day. The item remains hard to keep on the shelves, Angie said.
As she walked through the store assessing the aisles, she said: “Toilet paper is out except for paper towels, and ground beef is flying off the shelves, so hamburger is being limited to two packages per customer. Packages are being kept to about one pound so everybody can get some.”
Other items hard to stock include sanitizers and wipes and sanitizing sprays.
“They are gone as soon we get them in,” Angie said. They also are being limited.
Lately, she said, she notices about 1 in 10 customers shop while wearing masks. Those numbers increased over time, she said.
“Now, I can’t find them; they are all going to the hospitals. So they are not being sold in the store,” she said.
Medicines are still available.
“We stock what we can. Cold remedies are flying off the shelves. Medicines are not being limited right now,” she said.
Since the bars closed, sales of beverages containing alcohol went up.
“Now we order extra. We are trying to think ahead,” she said.
Hand washing and store sanitizing
To keep everyone safe, employees are properly washing their hands and those who handle food wear gloves. Those working with money have the option to wear gloves because money changes hands so frequently. It’s a precaution, Angie said.
“Every once in a while, a shopper will cough and everyone backs away, and as soon as they go out, we go in and sanitize the area. We do a lot of sanitizing,” Angie said.
Re-gloving between differing activities has become storewide protocol, and employees have appreciated and adopted that process, she said.
“Right now, gloves are nowhere to be found. We don’t sell them in the store. We keep a supply that we need to serve our customers. There are about 1,000 gloves per case, and we, as a store, are limited to how many cases we can have. I have two suppliers and I am getting the amount we need,” she said.
Can the store stay open?
Said Angie: “A government shutdown is my biggest fear. It would give us an inability to support the community. They should never close grocery stores, but you never know.
“We are big community people and we are here for this community as much as we can be.
“The only way we close is if the government closes us.”
Angie, 50, said she has an underlying condition that places her in the category of high risk.
“I am doing everything I can to protect myself, with gloves and washing my hands, and keeping the proper distance from people.”
Angie said she and Jason ask those in the community who may have submitted job applications for their patience.
While they are always looking at applications, she said, in the wake of COVID-19, there just hasn’t been time.
Changes in shopping habits
Shopping patterns for customers have also changed, Angie said, noting, “before all this, we had a lunch hour rush between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and then there was another wave of traffic when the kids got out of school, around 3:30, lasting until about 7 p.m. Now, we have steady traffic all day.
“I even met some people who came down from Madison to come shopping at our store because they couldn’t find what they wanted in Madison.”
Some people shop daily, she said, coming in to see what’s new with each shipment.
“Everything we have is selling,” she said.
Help the food pantry
Angie said clients of the Milton food pantry have been asked to shop at the store using gift cards to buy food, but the store ran out of gift cards. A new check-writing system has been put in place. A display is located in the front of the store offering customers options to help.