Grocers, Retailers Try To Refill Shelves Fast

Stocking Up

February 09, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes and Lorraine Mirabella | Gus G. Sentementes and Lorraine Mirabella, and Lorraine.

Santoni's Super Market, an independent grocery in East Baltimore, closed early for the first time in its 80-year history Saturday afternoon after a major delivery from its supplier didn't arrive and employees couldn't get through the snow to work.

The neighborhood store was able to open Sunday and Monday for limited hours only to prepare for the next wave of shoppers - and snow.

Record-breaking snowfall over the weekend created a logistical nightmare for grocers as shoppers flooded the aisles to stock up for the epic storm, deliveries were hampered by road conditions, and employees were snowbound at home. Then, with the region facing another storm that could dump another foot or more of snow starting today, grocers were trying to restock during a brief break in the weather.

Robert N. Santoni Sr., president of the grocery his father founded in 1930, took the challenge in stride. "After you've gotten 3 feet, another 6 to 12 [inches] doesn't matter anymore," he said, adding: "I think that hell has frozen over."

Many retailers across the Baltimore region reopened or resumed regular hours Monday and worked feverishly to restock shelves and ramp up deliveries just as consumers emerged from a weekend of shoveling and frolicking to shop in preparation for the next big storm.

In neighborhoods that still hadn't seen plows, such as Northwood in Northeast Baltimore, residents walked to the local market not sure whether they'd find it well-stocked. Donna Dodson, a 47-year-old freelance paralegal, walked from home to the Save-A-Lot grocery in the Northwood Shopping Plaza, where she bought eggs for a neighbor and milk for herself, which she planned to use for making custard.

"I had to get out of my home, that's for sure," she said. "I'm not able to move my car, but I am getting to meet my neighbors."

The Save-A-Lot serves several neighborhoods near Morgan State University. Wendy Carroll, 32, a housekeeper, went shopping there for milk, bread and orange juice - "the important stuff" - and found the shelves full. The store, which closed several hours early on Sunday, also had an ample selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, nonperishable items, and fresh meats.

"I was impressed, actually," said Carroll. "There was a lot of stuff in there."

Maureen Shannon, a Save-A-Lot spokeswoman, said the chain's 19 stores in Maryland ordered inventory as much as two to three times their usual order in anticipation of the storm. The chain's distribution center in Williamsport has been able to service stores in the Baltimore area and six other states, she said.

At Giant Food, one of the Baltimore area's largest grocers, managers on Monday scrambled to restock staples such as bread and milk that had run low over the weekend, while increasing subsequent deliveries.

"We are ramping up deliveries today and over the next 24 hours, because very few deliveries went out to our stores," said Jamie Miller, a Giant spokesman. "There are challenges based on the current conditions of the roadways, but we're working around those challenges."

Giant, which runs 100 stores in Maryland, had enough workers available to keep its stores open through the weekend storm, only shutting down early Saturday. Some store managers stayed in hotels, while some employees spent the night in the stores, Miller said.

Safeway closed its 30 stores in the Baltimore area Saturday, including three in the city, and reopened Sunday and Monday. Spokesman Craig Muckle said employees couldn't get to work, and in some cases there were problems getting the parking lots plowed.

Then new inventory couldn't get delivered on what is one of the busiest grocery days of the year: Super Bowl Sunday, according to Muckle. Now they have a short time to get ready for the next storm.

"We are still in a recovery mode," Muckle said. "A lot of our stores, while open, aren't nearly stocked to their normal levels."

Baltimore-area Target stores closed during the height of the storm, but most of the chain's stores had reopened by Sunday night. Amy Reilly, a Target spokeswoman, said the biggest in-demand items included water, batteries, flashlights and shovels.

"We have good systems in place to deal with weather and distribution," she said. "All stores should be getting stocked up as quickly as we can get the trucks there."

Walmart stores in South Baltimore's Port Covington and in Glen Burnie closed over the weekend and had not reopened as of late Monday afternoon. A spokeswoman, Ashley Hardie, said the chain has no word yet on when those stores will reopen.

Whole Foods Market at Harbor East closed at 5 p.m. on Friday, stayed closed Saturday and opened from just noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, when a lot of people walked over to the store from neighborhoods near downtown. Dan Reilly, store team leader, said the stock of some items ran low when trucks from the warehouse were unable to make it in.

"We got a truckload this morning and will be getting another tonight," he said. "We ordered heavy knowing we've got a storm coming up."

Even when inclement weather forces store closures, retailers often make up for the lost business thanks to overreaction by shoppers, said David Livingston, a managing partner with supermarket consultant DJL Research. "People panic and they go and buy groceries thinking they will be stuck in the house for months," he said.

For Robert N. Santoni Sr., making the decision to close his store early on Saturday was not an easy decision to make. The store has been open 24 hours a day since 1998. And while sales have been strong at the store since shortly before the storm hit, he said, expenses also went up as he expects a steep plow bill from the contractor he hired to clear his property of snow.

But another wave of shoppers is expected. And while people do buy the staples such as milk and eggs, they also come in for the food luxuries, he said.

"The hottest item that sells is ice cream," Santoni said. "I don't know what it is, but people buy a lot of ice cream."

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