Overnight, sales at Giant Eagle stores doubled and Laura Shapira Karet ’86, president and chief executive officer of Giant Eagle Inc., sprang into action.
As the pandemic hit in March, her top priority was safety, and she quickly instituted CDC guidelines for social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and sanitation practices. As restaurants closed and more shoppers poured in, she pitched in at the stores. Some days, she was a cashier and other days she helped stock the shelves.
“It was all hands-on deck,” she said. “I just jumped in where I was needed. In our business, it’s the people that move products in the warehouses and ring the registers and stock the shelves. The opportunity to walk in those shoes was a blessing.”
It’s been a wild ride, but the pandemic has made Karet understand more than ever what it means to be an essential business. “Our business is taking care of people and feeding people. We’ve always had that as a top priority, but in the middle of a crisis, it really hit home.”
One of the big challenges was keeping products on the shelves of the 214 stores – 481 if you count the GetGo gas station-convenience store chain. “The North American food chain was not designed to double overnight,” Karet said.
In March, shoppers hoarding toilet paper, canned goods, yeast and other nonperishables also depleted the inventory early on. In the first four months of the pandemic, as people avoided restaurants, grocery sales doubled.
“If you had takeout breakfast every morning, and it suddenly closed, you are making breakfast and coffee at home,” she said. “People are discovering cooking more.”
Curbside pickup and home delivery services, a small but growing part of the business, took off as COVID-19 cases spread.
The supermarket chain has hired more than 20,000 new employees and continues to hire more people, as others have had to leave due to health risks and family situations.
“Everyone has to make their own choice,” she said. To help retain employees, the chain has instituted strict safety protocols and offered incentives such as bonuses and providing meals.
The increased stress of being on the front line has been offset in part by the outpouring of support from the public. Customers regularly thank workers and even have handed them cards.
“I think the whole region came together so beautifully to support each other, and to the extent there was a silver lining to this crisis, that was it,” said Karet. “We were proud to play a role in that.”