Grocery cashier cleaning belt between customers while wearing gloves and a mask

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Family-owned chain of upscale markets in NYC suburbs was an early adopter of safety protocols, but its work isn’t finished

Grocery cashier cleaning belt between customers while wearing gloves and a mask

As the coronavirus pandemic tore through the Northeast this spring, DeCicco & Sons, a family-owned chain of nine stores located in the suburbs of New York City, quickly became a model of how to operate a business during COVID-19. They were among the first businesses in the country to implement extensive customer and employee safety protocols, many of which later became government-mandated.

Part of the urgency with which DeCicco & Sons approached the pandemic was no doubt personal. In the earliest days of COVID-19, the DeCicco family was hearing from their relatives in Italy about the virus’s rapid spread and deadly implications. Luisa DeCicco, the company’s head of human resources, was speaking daily to her sister, a doctor on the front lines in a hospital in the Puglia region of Italy, about the true devastation of the disease, as well as the practices needed to reduce its transmission. Luisa and her husband John DeCicco Jr., the company’s CEO, heeded these warnings, and wasted no time in translating the precautions being taken by the healthcare system into safeguards for their stores, their employees and patrons.

Here in the United States, the chain says it was among the very first to require all employees to wear masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as installing plexiglass checkout barriers, establishing special shopping hours for seniors and vulnerable individuals, and limiting the number of shoppers inside the store, as they closely managed capacity.

“We have had to think and act quickly; the health of our employees, and the communities we serve are at stake. This is a responsibility we didn’t necessarily ask for, but one we cannot walk away from either,” said John DeCicco Jr.

“Continuing to adapt, and delivering on our values and our commitment to our customers has required the focus of our entire team. That work isn’t over, it continues daily. We know that we need to maintain our vigilance, even as the warm weather and greatly reduced infection rate in New York has led to a certain amount of complacency or COVID fatigue in the general public.”

He added, “We know the infection rate is likely to climb, as the weather turns cooler, indoor activities increase, and cold and flu season commences. We hope the infection rate stays low, but we have to plan for the resurgence that is likely to occur.”

Quality First meets safety first

The DeCicco & Sons motto of “Quality First” is emblematic of the products they carry, especially in their award-winning specialty departments. Stores feature such amenities as fresh juice bars, gourmet-prepared foods, pizza ovens, fresh sushi bars, eat-in food courts and on-site craft beer bars. Many of these amenities have largely been forgone, in favor of heightened safety protocols, the retailer said.

Being able to continue to source the premium-quality products their customers expect, without interruption or shortage, proved to be its own challenge. Supply chain interruptions, the closure or partial closure of purveyors and distributors, many of them also family-owned businesses, became another COVID obstacle for DeCicco’s. Similarly, maintaining the high level of customer attentiveness with new staffing challenges and distancing requirements demanded further innovations from the family operation.

“Our people are the backbone of our business,” said Luisa DeCicco. “We have had to establish several new positions to facilitate store safety, manage traffic and enhance customer adherence to protocols. We’ve added over 300 payroll hours per week per store, 2,400 hours weekly for the chain. That is roughly the equivalent of adding the staffing of one store — just for safety-related functions.”

Grocery shopping going forward

As the pandemic progresses, DeCicco & Sons continues to evolve to safeguard its employees, customers and business. Among the measures the retailer is taking now, and considering for the near future, are changes both visible — the presence of masks and PPE, prepared food self-service functions replaced by staff functions, hand sanitizing stations — and less visible (but no less important) to the customer, such as the implementation of UV technology in their existing air filtration systems or the rigorous and thorough overnight cleanings.

Online ordering, curbside pickup and delivery will continue to grow, but the retailer acknowledges they are still an imperfect solution “that lacks the sensory aspect that is irreplaceably part of food and grocery shopping.” The DeCiccos noted that delivery and the pick-and-pack operation required for curbside pickup are labor-intensive, as are all the precautions and protocols required to make in-person shopping safe for employees and shoppers.

The chain chose not to institute the normal price adjustments that were due to occur in February 2020, John DeCicco Jr. said. “We did have many inflationary price increases which were scheduled to go though at the end of February, however, when we saw this storm coming we decided against doing any price increases, so not only do we have these [COVID-related] cost increases to cover, but we also have our normal yearly costs increases to cover.”

“The bottom line is that all businesses have already had to adjust to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “Those that will lead will continue to prepare, and fortify their response, for the sustainability of their business, and for the safety as well as convenience of their customers.”