Supermarkets and experts step up efforts to keep staff and customers safe

By Shani Reddy 20 March 2020

Image by gingerbreadca from Pixabay

Since the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 virus a global pandemic, international food retailers have stepped up to ensure their customers and staff that they are responding to the crisis effectively.

Leading retailers overseas have stepped up cleaning procedures and limited purchases of certain items to prevent stockpiling and shortages.

In the US, Target’s CEO Brian Cornell said in a statement that the health and safety of Target’s employees and customers is of the utmost importance.

“On top of our daily cleaning procedures, we’re adding hours to each store’s payroll to make our routines even more rigorous. This means more time is being spent cleaning our stores, including cleaning surfaces like touch screens at least every 30 minutes,” said Cornell. 

Target has also temporarily stopped food sampling in their stores.

In a recent statement, Walmart said they have dedicated staff to cleaning key areas throughout the day and are “pursuing easier ways to sanitise shopping carts. We also have plans in place for third-party sanitisation should it be needed for a store impacted by the virus.”

In South Africa, retailers such as Pick n Pay, the Shoprite Group, and Woolworths have also been putting measures in place to ensure the safety of their employees and customers.

The Shoprite Group told Maverick Citizen, “The well-being of Shoprite employees and customers is the focus point of all the new procedures and refreshed existing practices being put in place and communicated on an almost daily basis to enable all to avoid the spread of the virus and to be aware of symptoms.”

Pick n Pay’s group executive, David North, tells Maverick Citizen all their actions are “geared to supporting the health and well-being of our customers and our staff”. 

North says Pick n Pay “have put a number of precautionary safety measures in place including committing more time and resources to make the cleaning regimes in our stores even more rigorous, and sanitizing all till points throughout the day. 

“We are making hand sanitisers more available for customers and staff in our stores.”

Importantly, Pick ‘n Pay will be cleaning and sanitising trolleys.

“Sanitizing trolley wipes will continue to be available at store entrances, and trolleys frequently deep cleaned and sanitised,” says North.

The Shoprite Group has made hygiene and cleaning a priority.

“The importance of strict hygiene and hand-washing procedures, as well as the Clean-as-you-go principle (where surfaces are [regularly] cleaned and disinfected whilst working), have been reinforced with all store personnel,” says the group.

The Shoprite Group’s stores, which includes Checkers, have been equipped with disinfectant spray at all till points and are used by cashiers and packers to sanitise the entire till surface, including pin pads, as well as their own hands. 

The group says “customers can also make use of these spray bottles apart from the wipes provisioned at each store entrance for use on hands and trolley and basket handles”.

In addition to the increase in cleaning and sanitisation procedures, the Shoprite Group’s stores have stipulated that bakery products and salad bowls, previously openly displayed, are now bagged or tubbed before being put on display.

Woolworths say they are continuously updating their staff on developments of the outbreak. They have also provided their staff with guidance and training on personal hygiene and prevention measures.

Woolworths told Maverick Citizen that they increased the number of hand sanitisers in store for use by both their customers and their employees.

“Hand sanitisers will be present at the entrance to each store, at the entrance to the checkout queues and each till point. Extra trolley wipes are being provided as well as additional hygiene interventions for the store environment,” says Woolworths.

Woolworths cleanstheir stores “thoroughly every day” and “deep clean once a week”. 

However, having investigated, some stores have not been following the recent health protocols as set out by head office. 

On 18 March, Maverick Citizen witnessed that the Pick n Pay at the West Coast Village Shopping centre did not have hand sanitiser placed at each till. Staff were not wearing gloves, as they were in some of their other stores such as Table Bay Mall. One staff member at the Pick n Pay liquor store sneezed into their hand and continued to pack a customer’s pack without sanitising.

When asked why no sanitiser was at the till, the staff member replied, “You can just use the trolley wipes at the front”.

Kim Maxwell went to the Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Food Lovers Market at Gardens Centre. She said the stores were equipped with hand sanitisers but the staff weren’t informed on what to do with them.

“Woolworths had a full container of alcohol-based hand sanitiser and wipes located outside of the store and free for anyone to use. Alcohol based. About two hours later, the sanitiser was all finished. Consumers were piling it on.”

At Pick n Pay, Maxwell describes how the staff were aware of the necessary steps, but the sanitiser spray trigger wasn’t working, which meant it could not be used. 

“One of the supervisors came past and said that they were aware of it and were working on fixing it. They were trying to sort it out… they weren’t actually informing staff on what to do with them.

“… (a worker) at the Food Lovers Market was weighing items. I recommended he consider asking customers to weigh their own items, for his own and their protection. He had a bottle of sanitiser there, but didn’t seem to know that he should be using it,” says Maxwell.


Addressing the issue of stockpiling, which has led to shortages around the country, Shoprite CEO Pieter Engelbrecht said that “the gaps which are now evident on our shelves and those of other supermarkets are because of the unprecedented demand as a result of fear over the effect of the coronavirus, but we have new stock arriving regularly and we are working around the clock to keep shelves stocked.”

Engelbrecht said working together will be the only way to ensure that there will be enough for everyone.

Engelbrecht said that “as retailers we are increasing deliveries to ensure that store shelves are well-stocked again”. 

“We ask our customers to please help us to only buy what they need and not stockpile

“Unfortunately, rationing the sale of certain products will become necessary if consumers don’t adhere to this call.”

Pick n Pay’s David North said that as a result of the heavy customer demand over the past few days, the supermarket has implemented a purchase limit while stocks are temporarily low. 

North went on to say that “we [Pick n Pay] are reassuring customers that there is no reason to stock up beyond their normal shopping. 

“We have an excellent relationship with our suppliers and we’re working closely with them to make sure we have enough products in our stores and online, so customers can get what they want and need.”

Following in the footsteps of supermarket giants such as Walmart and Sainsbury, Pick n Pay have implemented a dedicated “elderly hour” as of Wednesday 18 March 2020, since the elderly are more vulnerable to the virus.

“We know the elderly are more vulnerable with this virus, so we are opening our stores an hour early (7am) each Wednesday for our customers over the age of 65. In this way, they can limit the number of times they are in busy spaces,” said North.

What the experts say

Maverick Citizen spoke to infections control specialist and former Chair of the Infection Control Africa Network, Professor Shaheen Mehtar, in order to find out what steps retailers and consumers should be taking. 

Mehtar recommends that retailers should be doing the following to keep their staff and customers safe:

  1. Provide hand hygiene and wipes at frequent stations around the retail store;
  2. Keep the environment clean and dry;
  3. Put up notices around the store to remind staff of what they should be doing;
  4. Clean and disinfect the toilets and public areas regularly; 
  5. DO NOT touch your face.

When asked whether or not staff should be wearing protective gear such as gloves and masks, Mehtar said that “there is no need to wear such gear. [Rather] make sure your hands are clean, do not touch your face, and wipe surfaces with disinfectants such as alcohol.”

With regards to whether supermarkets should have dedicated staff to wipe down trolleys and baskets once they have been used, Mehtar said she did not see the point.

“At the moment, most supermarkets have a wipe station next to the trolley station and I see lots of customers cleaning the trolley before using it. 

“Why hire people to do something so simple and logical? 

Mehtar suggests that stores should rather put up a notice at the trolley station, which should read “please use the wipes provided and clean the handles of the trolley before use”.

Mehtar also states that fresh produce and meat are safe for consumption and to make sure that food is cooked properly.

Mehtar wants to make it clear to the public that “just because there is a Covid-19 outbreak, it does not mean the virus, which is a winter flu-like virus, is going to start behaving differently to other viruses which we see each year — it just might be easier to transmit, but it still causes mild disease in 80% of cases. 

“What we need to do is to be vigilant about hand hygiene, not touching one’s face and covering one’s mouth and nose while coughing and sneezing. It is not really that complicated.”

For more information on the Covid-19 virus, visit the National Institute for Communicable Diseases website and the World Health Organisation (WHO) website.

If you are showing symptoms such as a cough, fever or have difficulty breathing, arrange for a virtual or telephonic consultation with your healthcare provider.

Alternatively, call the national coronavirus hotline (which operates 24/7) on 0800 029 999. MC



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