SWAMPSCOTT – What’s it like to manage a supermarket in a pandemic?
No one in this area knows better than Andew Ziner, who runs the Stop & Shop in Swampscott. Ziner, who is Jewish and grew up in Lynnfield, has worked in grocery stores for 38 years. He’s seen a lot during those decades, but he never envisioned being on the front lines of serving a panicked public in the middle of a health crisis.
Over the last few months, Ziner and his entire staff have worn masks all day, experienced a national shortage of toilet paper, dealt with stressed out workers and customers, trained everyone to keep their “social distance” of six feet apart, created one-way aisles, offered early morning senior citizen shopping hours, and trained customers and workers about the new rules as they were being implemented. Neither Ziner nor most of us saw this coming. There was no time to ease into it.
“I’ve been through power failures, hurricane alerts, three feet of snow, but nothing like this,” said Ziner, who lives with his family in Boxford. “If there’s a second wave, I think Stop & Shop is ready.”
Ziner began his grocery store career at the Peabody Purity Supreme on Lowell Street in 1982. After Stop & Shop acquired the company in the early 1990s, Ziner stayed on. He eventually rose to manage Stop & Shops in Revere, Gloucester and Arlington before coming to Swampscott more than five years ago.
When he started in the business, the stores didn’t accept credit or debit cards, and were smaller and carried far fewer products. Now there are self-checkout aisles that allow customers to shop and bag groceries as they go. There’s also a delivery service offered to the customer’s cars after they’ve ordered online, and Peapod deliveries to homes.
But like most businesses, Ziner believes it comes down to how a company interacts with its customers.
During the worse part of the pandemic, when cases of COVID-19 were climbing every day, Ziner said he and his staff were there for customers. Wearing a mask and dealing with worried customers and workers was challenging at times. “I never thought I would have to run a store wearing a mask 10 to 12 hours a day. It’s harder than you think. The associates were wonderful and for the most part, customers were wonderful. But others took it out on associates. We had some associates struggle with the 1 percent. We offered them extra breaks and encouraged them to go outside for fresh air. Everyone was stressed,” he said.
Some customers needed to vent, said Ziner. “Okay, vent to me, but not to my employees. I can only make every effort. I can’t control everyone [such as when] a customer sees someone going down an aisle the wrong way.”
Ziner feels Stop & Shop got ahead of implementing personal protection equipment by installing Plexiglas barriers between cashiers and the public in the checkout aisles, pharmacy, deli, seafood, meat and customer service areas; marking off six-foot distancing; and providing masks to all employees before it was recommended by Governor Charlie Baker. The store also takes temperature scans of all employees before starting work to comply with the town’s mandate.
“It’s not our role to train the public to use social distancing, wear masks and stand behind the Plexiglas. Some people came in not knowing and we had to say, ‘You are required to wear a mask.’ That was hard for some cashiers,” he said.
Ziner believes that many of these changes will remain in place post-COVID, “including social distancing, enhanced cleaning and special hours for seniors and those who are immunocompromised.”
The most challenging part of his job is “the workforce,” said Ziner. Although the store isn’t open 24 hours, third-shift employees are inside restocking shelves. The millennial workforce, said Ziner, has a “different work ethic because now there are so many options for them. How do you attract and keep them? How do you change your leadership and management style to accommodate different [ages]? Work in a supermarket is non-stop. It’s one of the busiest industries. Would you rather do this or fold clothes at Macy’s?
Asked what was the most unusual item a customer has ever requested, Ziner answered, “A whole pig. It was for a spit for a large pig roast for a Greek family in Peabody.”
Another esoteric request was for freshwater fish so a customer could make her own gefilte fish for Passover.
On a recent morning, Ziner stood in the kosher aisle – one of the largest kosher aisles at a supermarket north of Boston – and made sure every item was neatly in place before posing for a photo. Soon he was off to another aisle to hold another conversation, and perhaps deal with another hourly challenge, and another solution.