Pandemic Grocery Shopping Guide

Originally, I had written a very long piece going into (and ripping) different grocery stores and services for how they handle shopping and food delivery during the pandemic. However, it was getting to be an awfully long and, I felt, spiteful article that didn’t serve much purpose other than for me to get some frustration off my chest and rant.

I decided to scrap that article and write something more concise instead. I wanted to go less into anecdotes and deep analysis of everything, but I hope anyone reading this gets something out of it. Also, please keep in mind that the physical store locations I mention are situated in the suburban Montréal area. So, if you’re from another province or country, your mileage may vary. Also, franchised stores may be run differently from the ones in my city.

First up, everything is a mess. A visit to a store is met with rules, sometimes complex, complicated, and unnecessary. Many decisions either feel like a complete shot in the dark or a calculated move to prevent lawsuits.

The major thing is how grocery carts/baskets are handled. Some stores require that you take one while entering because counting is difficult apparently. At a store like Costco where I see them spraying down the carts with sanitizer coming from a backpack like they’re exterminators, other stores like IGA where I’ve seen carts be given to customers directly from other customers without any washing make me feel extremely nervous. Unless I know they’re doing a good job making sure all carts are sanitized after use (another good store for that is the Super C), I refuse to shop in a store if they force me to take a cart.

By the way, the Maxi stores that I’ve been too only sanitize the cart handle only after you’ve grabbed the cart and entered the store with it, which kind of defeats the purpose: you’re getting someone else’s germs and then your germs are going to remain on the cart afterwards.

Most stores have directional arrows to guide shoppers so that traffic flows a certain way. Most shoppers don’t follow them. It’s kind of hard to blame them when the employees working at these stores ignore them too.

The safer option would be online shopping, either for home delivery or curbside pickup. However, it is generally a poor experience and hard to recommend beyond the notion of trying to stay healthy.

Placing an order online is a chore. I’m never in a grocery store longer than 20 minutes. Yet, placing an order online is cumbersome. One order I placed for around $50 took half-an-hour because of trying to find and compare items and waiting for pages to load (which only takes a few seconds per item but adds up). Then once the order is placed, you must pick it up, which takes more time, especially if they’re busy. My last pickup order took me almost three times as long to place and receive as it would have had I just done it myself at the store.

Also, a major problem with online grocery shopping is substitutions. My experience wasn’t horrific, although I have been given flavours of products that I don’t like as a substitution. While I can live with that, as a customer, I should be given the choice to make a switch without it being a major thing, but many stores make it impossible. At least my experience is better than my dad’s where he was given inferior products as a substitution for no reason. When the store was contacted, they acknowledged that they just switched the product and they still had what he wanted in stock.

I think online grocery shopping can improve to a point where it becomes as easy as in-person grocery shopping, but treating their online storefronts like a regular webpage, as if I’m shopping for a TV, is too bloaty to make it easy-to-use. Touch-based apps that allow for the experience to go faster and having virtual aisles rather than menus would be more intuitive and make for a far more pleasant experience.

Additionally, although this is personal preference, I would like to see my fruits, vegetables, and meat/poultry before I buy it. I don’t know if I’ll ever want to buy that stuff online. Maybe one day, but not with the current setup where I’m getting damaged products in boxes. I don’t have fait in retailers to be given the best possible produce.

Then there’s Amazon, which for groceries is a mixed bag. You can’t order anything perishable, so fresh oranges or frozen pizza are out. However, if you’re looking for anything in a box or can, you can probably get it through Amazon. However, what I said about the ordering process for curbside pickup for grocery store can be said about Amazon. It’s not easy to search and compare. Also, Amazon pricing is weird and so sometimes you see wildly different prices for the same product but a different variety (for example, K-cup pods from the same brand sometimes will sometimes have quite different pricing).

Ordering from stuff from Amazon is relatively painless and somewhat easy since they deliver to your door, and with Prime, you can order almost anything without a shipping charge (third-party sellers are the exception). If it’s Canada Post doing the shipping, everything is easy. If you’re not home, it’s nearly painless to pick up the package. Everyone else though…It goes from tolerable to horrific. Intelcom will leave packages which is not secure. Purolator will either give you a damaged package, not ring your door and claim they tried to deliver it (and not leave a slip), or leave a slip for pickup only for the package not being available as per the instructions they left. Seriously, Purlator sucks. How could something owed by Canada Post, which is usually great, and provides a similar service, be so awful?

One last option are meal prep services. I’ve been using Good Food on-and-off for months and I like it. I’d rather be making my own recipes and I find it slightly overpriced (but not unreasonable) for what it is, but it’s convenient and the few issues that there has been was easily rectified by their customer service. I can’t speak for the other services available since I’ve only used Good Food, but from other people I’ve spoken to who have used competitors, their experiences were relatively the same. However, the somewhat higher than normal costs for these meals prevent it from becoming a complete replacement for grocery shopping. It mostly just replaces eating from a restaurant (although you must do the cooking and cleaning yourself).

I know we’re almost a year into the pandemic, so a grocery shopping guide in January seems like closing the barn doors after the horses have escaped. However, I really wanted to write this, and I do think I have a few suggestions for those that are still trying to figure out how to handle all of this. First, if you can, shop online. It’s not the most intuitive process, but it’s the safest one. If you are shopping in store, either do it as early as possible to avoid being around lots of people. Also, shopping early will make sure that you’re going to a restocked store rather than one that may have bare shelves (not always the case when items are scarce).

Also, treat those who are working with these stores with some respect and dignity. While there are some stores (cough, IGA, cough) where some of their clerks go out of their way to act like jerks, most people working in retail right now are dealing with a crazy atmosphere and a lot of venting from customers who are sometimes very abusive. Unless they’re abusive to you or they outright lie to you, try to be kind and considerate to those working the cashes and trying to keep the shelves stocked.

Jamie Gore

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