Early each morning, customers at Stop & Shop who are older or more vulnerable to the coronavirus will have a new way to fill up their refrigerator and pantry: An hour and half when they can shop before other customers arrive.
The Boston area-based grocer is starting the designed time slot Thursday. Along with the 90-minute window, it will have a special routine: Signs and floor sticker clings near highly-trafficked areas like the deli will remind customers to stay six feet apart. Every other cashier stand will be closed to allow more space between shoppers. And employees will encourage early birds to spread out in the lobby or outside before store doors open.
Stop & Shop, Target, Walmart and Amazon-owned Whole Foods are among the grocers testing the new approach to try to protect people with a higher risk of getting sick as confirmed cases of COVID-19 rise across the U.S. As Americans prepare for prolonged stays inside of their homes, grocery stores have drawn large crowds and frenzied shoppers.
By designating special time slots, retailers aim to make it easier for senior citizens and shoppers with medical conditions to safely navigate stores and buy food and household necessities.
Stop & Shop, which is owned by Ahold Delhaize, announced one of the most expansive programs. It will reserve 6 am to 7:30 am every day for customers age 60 and older and younger customers with weakened immune systems. The grocer has 413 stores across New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Gordon Reid, president of Stop & Shop, said the grocer brainstormed how it could help people most at-risk, especially after seeing the crush of shoppers at its stores.
"We saw the problem and then looked for a way to solve it," he said. "We don't know what response we're going to get, we don't know how many people are going to come along, but we wanted to make sure it was a constant that people could depend on because none of us know how long this is going to keep going."
Its stores will not ask shoppers for identification, but he said its employees will encourage an honor system and remind shoppers of the intent behind the special hours.
Reid said the store is trying to keep shoppers — especially since they're higher risk — safe by reminding them the 90-minute time slot every day. He repeated that message in an email to customers Wednesday, saying the store wants to create "a less crowded environment" and would appreciate if older customers don't all come the first day.
Whole Foods, Target and Walmart are starting special hours, too, but on a more limited basis. Whole Foods has set aside an hour at the start of every morning, but just for shoppers age 60 or older. Target and Walmart have an hour a week for customers. At Target, it's the first hour on Wednesdays and it's open to elderly customers or those with underlying health conditions. At Walmart, it's the first hour of each Tuesday for customers age 60 and older and it starts March 24.
Grocery stores owned by Albertsons will reserve at least 7 am to 9 am every Tuesday and Thursday for senior citizens and other at-risk shoppers. The grocery company has more than 2,200 stores that are part of different chains, including Safeway, Tom Thumb and Randalls.
Some smaller grocers, including Price Chopper Supermarkets, are reserving an hour of shopping for seniors, too.
At least one grocer said they considered the designated hour, but decided against it. Texas-based grocer H-E-B said it consulted with health officials and was advised against having a vulnerable population in the same area at the same time.
Dr. Wen Dombrowski, a Los Angeles-based geriatrician who advises Fortune 500 companies on innovation at the California-based firm Catalaize, said she sees the benefits of the hours, especially when stores first open. She said stores are likely to be cleaner and better stocked in the morning. That, she said, could reduce stress caused by empty shelves or panicked shoppers and lower a senior's chance of an anxiety-related accident, such as a fall. It would help limit their exposure to younger shoppers, who can be sick but not have symptoms, too, she said.
To make the new approach useful, she said stores should spread the word through paper fliers and community organizations, since older adults may not check social media. She said once a week is too limited and hard to remember, so she recommends having at least an hour each day.
But, she added, dedicated time for vulnerable adults could increase risk if stores and shoppers don't take precautions. For example, if store employees check a customer's drivers license for age, she said, they could contaminate the ID and get the person sick. If at-risk shoppers line up or cluster together, she said, they could get each other sick.
She said there are many seniors, pregnant shoppers and adults with chronic medical conditions in the U.S. That means stores could soon face a familiar challenge: Crowded stores and jammed-up aisles.
"Maybe they could pilot it as hour," she said. "But if there is a demand, I think they should expand it."
Dr. Christine Kistler, a geriatrician and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Medicine, said seniors should reduce their shopping trips, regardless of when they shop.
She suggested using the senior hours, but "combined with as infrequent shopping as you can do."
If seniors see a full parking lot at the store, she said they should leave and come back another day — or call a neighbor to run to the store for them.
She said she's been heartened by how people are helping older adults. She's seen medical school students delivering Meals on Wheels. In her Chapel Hill neighborhood, she paired up older residents with younger residents, to help them buy groceries, pickup prescriptions and more.
She said it's important for all people — not just grocers — to reach seniors in new ways and help them stay healthy and engaged with phone calls, online book clubs or other virtual social events.
"We don't want social distancing to turn into social isolation," she said.