Cost Less Food manager Oscar Avila has witnessed plenty over the course of four decades working at the Turlock grocery store, but the pandemonium that has followed a statewide quarantine effort in light of coronavirus concerns is unlike anything he’s ever seen.
“I’ve never seen it quite as bad as it is right now, and I worked through people panicking about the new millennium in 1999,” Avila said. “But I appreciate everybody’s loyalty for coming in.”
As restaurants close their doors to the public and other businesses are hit hard by required closures due to COVID-19, essential businesses like Cost Less are flourishing — albeit under heavy amounts of stress and pressure to keep shelves stocked and surfaces clean.
Last summer, Cost Less was struggling greatly due to construction on West Main Street that saw one of the city’s main thoroughfares — and the primary entrance to the store — closed. Now, however, community members are rushing to buy essential items so that they can stay home and curb the spread of the virus, pushing the grocery store’s finances back to normal.
“It’s not good to say anything is positive about this, but there have been some good things,” Avila said of the grocery store boom. “I just wish it would all go back to normal, though, because I hate seeing people worry and lose their jobs.”
Grocery stores around the Valley, including Save Mart, Raley’s and Safeway, are all currently hiring new employees to meet the demand of panicked shoppers. Avila hasn’t had to hire anyone new, he said; his part-time workers who are no longer in school are now able to work full time and earn more money, while his employees who already had a full schedule now have plenty of opportunities to earn overtime.
Luckily for them, there’s plenty to do. While Avila has hired a cart cleaning service to spray down shopping carts with alcohol and water at the end of every day, employees armed with antibacterial wipes are responsible for keeping carts clean throughout the day in between washes. Every night, the store also closes early at 8 p.m. so that employees can disinfect the entire store and make sure the empty shelves are refilled with food.
It takes Cost Less six more employees than it used to to stock the shelves at night, Avila said.
“With the COVID-19, we have to be very careful about everything right now. We want to keep our store as clean, healthy and safe as we can for our customers,” he said. “We’re also trying to do the best we can to make sure that before we open, there’s product on our shelves...People have been telling me we’re probably the fullest store in town right now and we have all of the staple items that people need.”
While grocery stores like Cost Less may have almost too much business on their hands, retail stores are doing all they can to provide what services they can in the safest, most effective way possible. A majority of retail stores have closed their doors completely, but others like Farm House have still found a way to make ends meet.
While the Farm House store doors may be locked, owner Candace Gonsalves has made an effort to take orders through social media and over the phone and is even offering tours of the store via FaceTime for those who may want to virtually shop. The shop ships items to homes or customers can pull up to the back of the store to pick up their purchase. Other downtown shops like Glitz Fine Clothing are also offering online sales with shipping as a way to still make sales.
So far, the small service has helped people in need of meaningful gifts during a time when open shops are hard to come by. Gonsalves shared that over the weekend, she was able to send photos of items in the store to a customer in search of an elopement gift for a friend whose wedding was canceled. That same day, another customer reached out in search of a comforting gift for a teen mom about to give birth.
"My intentions were and have never been driven by money. And my love for our community has been proven way before this virus ever surfaced. Our customers’ mental and physical health is so important to us. That is why we have completely deep cleaned the store and we use very strict measures to keep all items and packages sanitized,” Gonsalves said. “...Quite frankly, I wouldn’t say we are ever ‘closed’ because we answer customers from the moment we are awake until we go to sleep. We will continue to be there for our customers in any way they need right now, implementing a completely contactless approach, not for sales, but because we think we all could use a bit more positivity and hope.”
On Thursday, the Turlock Chamber of Commerce will host a “virtual mixer” for the business community to share ideas and strategies to help each other through this difficult time. For more details on how to join, visit the Chamber’s Facebook page.