Until three weeks ago, Costco employee Michele Morales thought she’d seen it all. But when the coronavirus pandemic created a level of panic and stress many Las Vegas residents had never experienced, an incident occurred in the parking lot that left Morales perplexed.
“A member told me they pulled in next to a lady who was just standing next to her car staring at it, because it was covered in pink goo,” said Morales. Someone had chucked a strawberry shake at the shopper’s car. Can one think of a more accurate representation of the frustration in the inability to find paper towels in bulk? And the deeper question is, why would someone do that? The incident was one of many that simply ticked Morales off. “It just made me so angry that so many people were acting like this; it felt like they didn’t have common sense,” she said.
The panic of shoppers actually put Costco members and employees in danger because the amount of volume was simply too much for the store to control, and employees struggled to keep the store in order. "We couldn’t keep the aisles clear,” Morales said. Shoppers ransacked the aisles and boxes were strewn across the floor, leaving messes that wreaked havoc on employees. In some cases, several employees worked in departments that were out of their comfort zone, such as merchandising, to help take care of the volume, which led to some pallets not being safely secured. These factors caused an infectious level of stress within the warehouse.
Morales took the stress as a challenge. “Sometime after the first couple of days, I realized that it wasn't helping me. And so I had to put on my big-girl pants and be better than this.” And while she took the pandemic in stride—staying positive, putting smiles on shoppers’ faces and helping where she could—it was still tough. “I’d go home and just be in a horrible mood, not quite knowing why. And, like, I had a great day. I helped this person, I helped that person, and I felt good that I was there for them. [But] I’d end up crying alone at the end of the night, just overwhelmed—overwhelmed with knowing that there are so many people that just can’t get what they need and they're scared. Everybody’s scared.”
But that was three weeks ago. Costco has since put measures in place that have alleviated the pandemonium. Only 25 members are allowed in the store at one time, and shoppers now have a limit on the items they’ve notoriously been panic-buying, like toilet paper, which allows people to shop comfortably without having to fight with hordes over the last pack. It allows seniors and disabled shoppers to gather necessities without feeling rushed. Morales’ warehouse also has a dry-erase board out front, highlighting the items that are out of stock, which assists members in their decision as to whether they should stand in line; the usual suspects include toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water, rice and canned meats like Spam.
Other measures include hash marks for shoppers to stand on while in line at every register, six feet apart, and employees are constantly sanitizing their work stations and POS systems, all of which help shoppers feel safer. Shoppers have even become patient and thankful. “They’re kind of looking at employees differently,” Morales said. “And from my perspective … I think that people that are good people, that got caught up in their lives, are reevaluating things—reevaluating how they live on a daily basis, how we take it for granted that we can just run over to Albertsons because we forgot to get chicken.”
Similar measures are in place at other grocery stores around the Valley. A Trader Joe’s employee, who asked to remain anonymous, described their store as almost serene. “My store captain is like the ultimate man of peace. And all he required is that all of us stay safe. And the best way to do that was to minimize the amount of people in the store at once,” the employee said. Trader Joe’s, like Costco, allows 25 people in the store at a time, and they’ve also put limits on the products people can purchase. “It’s so nice and calming to come and shop in here. Even the music that we play, it’s like the good old days kind of music—it’s like someplace you want to be, not someplace you’re dreading to be in.”
This pleasant atmosphere is intentional and necessary, because people don’t need extra reasons to be panicked during this pandemic. “We are in contact with so many people,” the employee said. “But seriously, we don't let them know that we may be afraid. We just don’t. Because what good does it do to panic people? We want a good working atmosphere; we don't want our customers to feel uncomfortable or unsafe.”
Put that in contrast with a worker from Smith’s, who also asked to remain anonymous. “I choose to wear gloves and a mask … and I had a customer that came up to me and said that I’m creating fear in people,” the employee said. “It really shocked me.” On the other hand, the employee also fielded complaints that other workers weren’t wearing masks.
Aside from that instance, however, the Smith’s employee thinks the store has a calming presence. “I feel that the fear in shoppers is lessening. We’re getting more stock in every day, instead of not having any toilet paper." And the store has new hours, which also helps. “It’s 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., which has helped us stock, and it’s helped relieve stress on buyers.” Those changes have helped level the curve of pandemonium: “People have been able to get the necessities,” the employee said.
Even though grocery store employees are seeing their customers more at ease, it’s still been a tough couple of weeks.
“I see it in the checkers, the bookkeepers—everyone in the store is exhausted,” said the Smith’s employee. “All I have to tell people, truly, is to thank the employees for showing up.” That sort of gratitude could go a long way.