OTTAWA — Mark Kohls sees the familiar faces in his grocery store a lot more often these days.
He sees husbands and wives shopping together at Kohls Market in Ottawa. Sometimes they’re bringing along their children to help choose what to eat for dinner.
“It seems now that some people made some new habits,” said Kohls, a co-owner at the store on Ottawa’s Main Street. “Some people actually like eating around the table.”
People handling your food before you cooked it at home saw lots of growth in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it was at your local grocery store or at a large food distribution center, like Lima’s SpartanNash, saw big increases. Lima’s distribution center added 60 people, bringing its headcount up to 347 associates.
“History usually tells us what sales trends are going to be,” said Dave Tuttle, regional director for distribution operations at SpartanNash at its centers in Bellefontaine and Lima’s east side. “The pandemic completely threw history out of the window. We had to rethink the amount of resources we need and all the things we needed to do to keep up with the increased volume.”
Todd Buzzell, SpartanNash’s regional director for sales, specifically remembers the date — March 12, 2020 — when he and Tuttle realized how much more demand there would be for products. People started hoarding what they could find, especially when it came to toilet paper and paper towels, putting more stress on manufacturers and thus distributors like SpartanNash, which delivers goods to markets nationally, including 150 of its own.
“Our buyers worked very diligently with suppliers, but our suppliers said basically they would stay at the same levels we’d bought before, we had no more,” Buzzell said. “We didn’t like that answer. Our customers wanted more. It became quite an art form, encouraging manufacturers of toilet paper, spices or soup to supply us with quantities we needed.”
Consumers saw the change, too. As manufacturers focused on making more of their best-selling items, less popular ones became harder and harder to get.
Kohls began posting on his store’s Facebook page whenever different items could come in or what was hard to find. While the distribution chain is working better now, there are still things that are difficult to find, such as certain box stuffing mixes, pickles, hot sauces, bacon bits, pancake mixes, crackers and taco sauces, Kohls said.
On the employee side, the coronavirus both created a need for more workers and delivered the solution at Kohls. Once in-person education stopped, he boosted the hours for his 20 to 25 high school students who worked at the store to help stock shelves and unload trucks. They followed all the recommendations, including wearing masks, socially distancing and routinely cleaning. Things finally settled out before they had to return to in-person learning in the fall.
At SpartanNash’s Lima distribution center, up went the plexiglass and down went stickers on the floor to help people remain socially distanced. A lasting change could be on staffing, as the demands of the virus forced Tuttle to rethink it.
“We always ran very lean as far as labor needed because our numbers were pretty steady,” Tuttle said. “We’ve got to have some additional headcount now to kind of a get a jump start on what-if situations like the pandemic.”
He was proud that even as things got busy at the distribution center, they still found time to care for the community and employees. The company dotated 47,000 pounds of products in 2020 to the local community, along with $12,500 to the West Ohio Food Bank.
All the changes of the past 12 months helped people see the bigger picture.
“We’ve learned to operate with a little more stress,” he said. “It’s interesting with the snowstorm we just had, it didn’t seem like as big of a deal. … We’re under the stress of 12 inches of snow we had, and we’ve noticed out customer demand doesn’t seem to change like when it typically does when we have a snowstorm.”
It made Kohls rethink his competition, too. His numbers went up when restaurants closed down.
“We realized how much our competition isn’t other retailers, it’s fast food and restaurants,” Kohls said.
Now he’s hopeful some of the changes from the past year will remain.
“It’s been good for family time — really good,” Kohls said. “Since we weren’t allowed the big gatherings, a lot more families are doing things together. That’s a real positive to come out of all this.”