From a mad rush to a tap turning off: How independent grocers will see through COVID-19

Supermarkets fresh food

When Scott Morrison announced border closures and it became clear measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were about to get stricter, Mt Evelyn IGA owner Tony Ingpen saw a slightly increased demand for toilet roll quickly morph into a sales frenzy he likens to to “five Christmas Eves in one week”.

With traditional suppliers unable to provide stock in such a short space of time, Ingpen relied on local businesses, he tells SmartCompany.

“In 48 years, I have never seen customers acting en-masse in the same way. When Daniel Andrews made the announcement that they were moving to phase-three, and there was ambiguity about whether the liquor stores would remain open, our liquor sales went up by 50% in two hours,” Ingpen says.

“I came into work on Sunday and saw that foot traffic had continued at a similar level, so we organised five deliveries instead of three for the following week,” he adds.

“I said to the local baker, ‘anything you can bake I can sell’. I told the butcher, get ready for a tsunami, as you’ll be swamped.

“There was two weeks of really good trade, but we were very patchy on the shelves, and we needed to ramp up what was happening in a big way.”

With both supply and demand steadying over recent weeks, Ingpen says those Christmas Eve-type days have turned into consistently good trading days.

A new wave of customers have started to appreciate the IGA’s broad range of products compared to the major chains, and he believes a sense of customer loyalty has been built.

“We brought in new systems — including social distancing with staff and customers — that have helped us cope with safe retailing.

“We have flour, rice and yeast trickling back in, and we had more flexibility to ring people up, think laterally and make quick decisions to get food on the shelves,” Ingpen explains.

“It has been a chance to show how good our range is. We don’t have the generic and controlled brands that Coles and Woolworths have, and people who have come to us after seeing the empty shelves at the major chains have had a chance to see what we’ve got.

It’s been a big adjustment, but hopefully we are coming out of this fog and into the new normal.”

Like a tap turned off

For third-generation wholesaler NSM Foods in Brunswick, the response to COVID-19 saw a huge drop in demand in their wholesale delivery service.

However, owner Saeed Sidaoui says the business’ online grocery delivery service, Nuts about Life, has helped to keep the business afloat.

“There’s truly a feeling that the shops have closed, which is horrible, and there’s been a huge drop in demand for the wholesale side of the business,” Sidaoui says.

“But we have done a lot of online business to families. It is not a 100% relacement, but we haven’t had to stand anyone down.”

Sidaoui says NSM has introduced new products including instant yeast and an ‘essential bundle’ of goods at a reduced cost.

“The reception to our essential bundle — which includes beans, lentils, flour, rice and salt and pepper shakers — has been overwhelmingly positive. With enough going on, our customers don’t have to worry about having food on the table,” he explains.

“We have been starting early each day and finishing late at night, and we would do it forever to ensure that people eat well.

“We’re a small business, and we are doing whatever we can to help others. Fingers crossed we’ll be around for as long as this goes on.”

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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