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OKOTOKIAN: Sobeys delivered during pandemic

“What we realized early on is this wasn’t about selling a whole bunch of groceries, it’s about employee and customer service, that became paramount.”
David Gilbert DL 0052
Okotoks Sobeys owner-manager Dave Gilbert said teamwork and community was the key to continuing to serve the public during COVID-19. (Photo by Devon Langille Photography)

A long-time family run grocery store has always counted on delivering good service to its customers.

That delivery was put to the test at Sobeys Okotoks when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March.

“Pre-pandemic, we had maybe 250 to 300 orders for deliveries per month,” said Sobeys Okotoks owner David Gilbert. “That went up about 10-fold after the pandemic was announced in mid-March.”

Sobeys staff and its customers had to make adjustments to how they did things after everybody’s life changed in March.

“When our prime minister made the call that people should come home from abroad that is when we really started to realize how serious it was,” Gilbert said.

A pandemic is totally different than say Thanksgiving where a head’s up grocer knows to buy plenty of turkeys and cranberries ahead of the game.

“What I didn’t realize was how many people from this area are snowbirds,” Gilbert said of those days in March. “They were coming from Palm Springs, Phoenix area and our phone starting ringing because of our delivery and curb-side pick-up service.”

Suddenly, Okotoks Sobeys was making approximately 3,000 deliveries a month.

Gilbert was like an NHL coach going into the playoffs — bring up any reinforcements and don’t be afraid to adjust your lineup if need be.

“We didn’t have the time or the heads-up to formally strategize,” Gilbert said. “I called in a lady I really trust, a retired RCMP, (Sharon Franks) and a former assistant store manager who worked for me (Lisa Davidson) and then I realigned some people, trained them quickly with the curb-side pick-up service and the orders just kept coming forward and forward...”

Sobeys delivered regardless of the size of the order – an inconvenience for staff but a necessity for some individuals.

Gilbert said he would get requests from residents at a seniors home, for example, in which only four items were asked to be delivered.

“We got it to them, we didn’t really enforce a limit,” Gilbert said. “If they needed an item, we got it to them.”

Deliveries are nothing new at Sobeys – just the sudden urgency was.

“My mom and dad (Don and Rae) are the ones who started it in the 70s in fact,” Gilbert said.

But 2020 was different than the days of the Mood ring and disco. Sobeys had to find its groove to handle all the deliveries and curb-side pick-ups erupting due to COVID-19.

It meant nearly around the clock work to try to get deliveries done either the same day or within 24 hours.

“In the early days, we had pickers in at night and we would compile all the orders that we could,” Gilbert said. “But you have to remember that was when the fear and panic stage buying was going on too.

“So, the store was so darn busy with traffic too. It was hard to meet everyone’s needs but we did the best we could.”

During the March crush, Sobeys got some outside help to get things done — John and Jane Q. Public were more than willing to lend a helping hand.

“I probably had half a dozen guys come up to me and say: “Hey if you need help with your deliveries, I have a free truck for an afternoon tomorrow,” Gilbert said. “Andrew Gustafson, from Natural High, one of the first things he did was: ‘Hey, how can we help?’”

Also making the trek to help with deliveries was a relative newcomer to town — the Okotoks Transit System.

“When the pandemic was in full gear the ridership with Okotoks transit was way down,” Gilbert said. “David Gardner (Okotoks Transit System specialist) came to me and wanted to know how the Town could help.

“We worked out a plan in which they could place about seven or eight orders in a van, we would load them up, and they would drop off all the orders and they would get another eight.

“We ran that program until the end of June... We could not have done this without their help.”

Meanwhile, Sobeys staff members buckled down to get things done, despite having concerns of their own.

“They certainly had a valid reason,” Gilbert said. “Either they were considered a high risk or possibly lived in a same house-hold of someone that was high risk.

“The majority wanted to step up and asked how could they do more to help... It was such a team effort.”

The staff had to deal with some unexpected issues, such as toilet paper flying off the shelves.

“Sure, there were moments with toilet paper and paper towels, we had to put some limits on some things,” Gilbert said. “But if you weren’t able to get Clorox wipes, we were able to get Lysol wipes.

“We are at the mercy of the supply chain but I think when we look back at it all now. I think people can feel confident that the Canadian system is not going to run completely dry.”

He said the store was able to keep up with beef, for example, despite COVID-19 issues at Cargill and JBS meat plants in High River and Brooks, respectively.

Meanwhile Sobeys had a new look. Like businesses, schools and other facilities, suddenly there were directional arrows telling people where to walk in order to keep in step with COVID-19 protocols.

A large part of the strategy came from head office, which was studying the proceedings at other stores across the country and with consultation with public health officials.

“Here’s a store map, for example, and here is where we suggest you put the arrows,” Gilbert said. “A phone call came down in March saying that in the next week, ‘there are teams deployed all across the country, you are going to have Plexiglas barriers up at your tills.’

“What we realized early on is this wasn’t about selling a whole bunch of groceries, it’s about employee and customer service, that became paramount.”

Six months later, Sobeys is still employing approximately an extra 90-plus hours a week in labour for more cleaning – from wiping down carts, counters and any area a customer or staff member may come in contact with.

And Gilbert is stunned it is still going on.

“If you would have asked me back in April or May, if we would still be dealing with this at Thanksgiving, I would have said, ‘I don’t think so,”’ Gilbert said.

The deliveries did drop off, although Sobeys still hasn’t gone back to the 250 or so deliveries a month prior to COVID-19. Gilbert expects deliveries to increase again as the colder months are here.

As for the customers, they are not only buying groceries, but have also bought into the safety protocols and have recognized the efforts of the staff.

“There were so many people that went out of their way to compliment a staff member, cashier... people could tell we were getting tired,” Gilbert said. “It’s stressful. The last thing you want is an outbreak in your own business.

“Customers were going out of their way to say what a great experience they had. Those meetings keep you going.”

There have been the odd tense situations in these tense times.

“I had to get involved and ask some people to leave, early on, when they weren’t following the arrows and they became abusive to the other customers,” Gilbert said.

He said the customers quickly adapted.

“Everybody knows what it is like and as long as you respect people’s space and you don’t feel like you have to jump in front of everyone, it’s good,” Gilbert said. “It’s been a good environment.”

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