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Brisk sales, harried employees at local grocery stores

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As many people find themselves working from home or out of work altogether, grocery store employees in southeastern Connecticut are busier than ever, working long hours to sanitize stores and restock shelves amid pandemic panic-buying.

"It's just been difficult getting the amount of stuff that people are buying," said Michael McQuade, owner of McQuade's Marketplace, which has locations in Mystic, Westerly and Jamestown, R.I. "There's a tremendous amount of panic buying; that's what's made all these issues."

As was the case at other grocery stores, the toilet paper at the Mystic store had been wiped out by mid-day Tuesday. McQuade said the main grocery supplier arrives between 3 and 4 a.m., and the smaller suppliers come in all day long.

He said the store has been buying toilet paper from different suppliers, such as a natural food company that sells toilet paper made from bamboo, which is more expensive.

At Country Marketplace on Old Colchester Road in Oakdale, employee Krishna Patel said business has picked up significantly since the COVID-19 outbreak began.

"We get deliveries on Tuesday morning and Friday morning," Patel said Tuesday. "This morning was crazy. In the morning time, it's very busy when we get deliveries. By 12, we're out of half the things we need, and we just got them in."

Patel said he's noticed people aren't as apt to stop and chat nowadays, and that many come in with masks and gloves.

McQuade said people also have been buying a lot of hamburger, canned beans, rice and flour.

When the store brings in 10-pound bags of flour, "it's sold out within two hours, and normally that is a real slow item except around the holidays; that's when there's a lot more baking," McQuade said. "But maybe with all the people being home, that might be something they're doing with their kids."

The other day, McQuade's had 18 pages of out-of-stock items for one store, with 28 items per page, McQuade said.

"I was expecting that people were going to slow down by now, like everyone has their stuff, but they're still going hard," employee Anna Wagner said. She works on deliveries to places such as StoneRidge and Masonicare, which have kept her busy.

Both McQuade and Bobby Alden, the meat manager, said they have been struggling with not getting as much of a product as they order; Alden said he ordered four of various Bell & Evans products last week but got only one of each.

Limiting purchases

At Ledyard Village Marketplace, manager George Roy also said a lot of items are on allocation, meaning stores are being allotted only a small amount of some high-demand products. With the exception of paper and cleaning products, the shelves at the shop were well-stocked Tuesday. Roy said the time of deliveries varies, and the store is busy throughout the day.

At Stop & Shop locations, the shelves where toilet paper and paper towels had once been were adorned with signs reading, "Due to limited supply, one paper towel product per customer."

"People are nuts, they really are," customer Eric Sesty said while shopping at the Montville store on Tuesday. "At the beginning of this, when everyone was ransacking everything, people were not polite, and this is when you have to be extra polite. I'm 10 times nicer to people than usual."

Jolene Hester, a pharmacist who only leaves home for work and shopping at the moment, said she looks for fresh products such as meat and cheese when she shops, but she is all set on toilet paper because she got some at BJ's last month.

"I have a huge freezer at home, so I have a ton of stuff already frozen," she said.

Stop & Shop spokesperson Maura O'Brien said the store has noticed an uptick in purchases of Purell hand sanitizer, Clorox items and paper goods. She said Stop & Shop has a blanket two-item limit on such items, although some stores, like the one in Montville, can have a lower limit if they see fit.

All Stop & Shops have a different delivery schedule, but O'Brien said each is receiving perishable and nonperishable deliveries daily.

Pay raises

Jason Frechette, business representative for the United Food & Commercial Workers union local that represents most of the Stop & Shop stores in southeastern Connecticut, said Local 919 members are getting a temporary 10% pay increase and an additional two weeks of paid sick leave if necessary.

Frechette said the union worked with Stop & Shop to get sneeze guards implemented for the cash registers, service desks and pharmacies, and it is working with Gov. Ned Lamont's office to get grocery store workers classified as Tier 2 emergency workers.

O'Brien said Stop & Shop is hiring throughout Connecticut.

"There are a lot of people out of work in the state," O'Brien said. "Given that Stop & Shop is offering essential services to our customers, we are hiring in all stores and all positions in Connecticut."

This action, which has been taken in Vermont and Minnesota, means employees would get free child care while they're working.

At Fiddleheads Food Co-op in New London, front-end manager James Burke said supply-chain issues have affected the store, including a missed shipment from its biggest wholesaler and no refrigerated items being delivered one day. In some cases, the co-op has turned to local vendors and farmers to make up for the decreased supply.

Meat has been sparse at times, so the co-op has carried more seafood from local wholesaler Sea Well Seafood. Produce has been impacted the least, Burke said, aside from a low supply of potatoes on St. Patrick's Day.

Sales at Fiddleheads tripled in the immediate wake of the pandemic, then doubled, and are currently slightly higher than usual, despite operating on reduced hours.

The co-op — open to the public, not just members — is opening later than usual to allow employees more time to stock shelves and clean without having to navigate around customers. The store is now open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

It also has increased its capacity to offer curbside pickup and is encouraging customers to take advantage of that option.

"We never expected to be first responders in a national pandemic or crisis," Burke said. "We're very proud of the role that we're playing in this moment. Especially being the only grocery store within walking distance of downtown New London, we want make sure that our community is still served."

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