Keeping local people fed when stores were shut down overnight on March 24 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was a real responsibility felt by the team at Four Square Katikati.

As an essential service in alert level 4, the locally-owned store was able to continue trading, with staff processing peak numbers of customers through only two checkouts, closing the central one to maintain social distancing.

"As for the rest of the country, Covid-19 happened incredibly fast for us," said Four Square Katikati owner Peter Jones.

With demand for goods building as news of the pandemic rolled out across the world, within minutes of some of the key announcements the Katikati store was inundated.

Advertisement

"Previously we welcomed customers, then all of sudden we were asking them to queue, to maintain social distancing, to only send in one person from their household."

Frantic changes were made to the store's ordering systems to keep stock on the shelves.

"Fortnightly suppliers were suddenly taking orders twice a week, and monthly orders became weekly. Truck runs had to be rescheduled, suppliers really stepped up," Peter said.

The freezers getting low on stock during lockdown.
The freezers getting low on stock during lockdown.

"Parent team, Foodstuffs, were incredibly supportive, liaising with government at a ministerial level for a single source of the truth, with updates on daily North Island-wide Skype calls seven days a week with all other Foodstuffs supermarket owners.

"We had to bring in builders after hours, working late into the night installing perspex screens to keep our team members and customers safe, minimising the risk of the spread of the virus.

"We were very aware of the privilege we had to trade. All our team members dug deep, aware of our responsibility in helping feed Katikati and to supply other household needs, as well. And all the time, how to do that while trying to keep everybody safe."

Peter said "clean, clean, clean" became a catchphrase that's going to be around for a long time to come.

The increased workload meant rapidly increasing staff by 50 per cent, which brought challenges.

Advertisement

"We were glad we could provide additional employment to some who had lost work, but had to train and induct them, not only in normal procedures, but overlaid with new safety and cleaning protocols.

"Team members' shifts changed – extra ordering days and staying back late for night fill to get the shelves filled safely, without customers in the shop."

All hands on deck, produce manager Suman Neupane helps to stock shelves.
All hands on deck, produce manager Suman Neupane helps to stock shelves.

Communication became paramount, many shifts starting with a team briefing, updates on rules and protocols.

"Everyone was aware they were essential workers on the frontline."

Peter said in a retail and customer service industry, it's awkward having to ask people to maintain a social distance, to plan their shop, and to keep moving so others can enter.

"The majority of customers were so gracious, supportive and patient. Shop Safe, Shop Kind and Shop Local became real mainstays for our community.

"If customers displayed tension or worry, the team showed patience or gave an extra smile. They reminded themselves that perhaps life in lockdown is extra tough for that person.

"The team realised that all of sudden for many, a trip to the supermarket was the only social interaction in their life.

"We learned a lot and grew a lot."

Easter was another challenge with the big box retailers closed. Extra Easter eggs were ordered in several times before Easter, with a final lot arriving on Easter Saturday.

"We'd been wanting to set up fresh bakery products for some time, and minimal traffic on the roads provided the ideal opportunity to source them from a Tauranga bakery as a trial. The uptake and popularity has been fantastic."

Four Square added fresh bakery products while in lockdown.
Four Square added fresh bakery products while in lockdown.

They also added in a much wider range of kitchenware and utensils, home heating supplies, umbrellas, baby supplies, beanies and socks, and then came Mother's Day – more treats, cards and gift ideas.

Supplies of some lines or brands had dried up through panic buying, or there was product, but packaging had run out.

The Foodstuffs team scoured the world and Four Square scoured the country for alternative suppliers of hand wash, hand sanitiser, face masks and so on.

Peter said they finally turned off their last product purchasing limit a couple of weeks ago.

Maintaining the store's specials programme right through the lockdown and beyond was important.

Peter said they kept pressure on suppliers to maintain their support with regular promotions for customers.

Entering level 3, Lotto NZ approached Four Square about making Lotto available once again. And their florist partner, Lorraine Wilks from Fragrance of Flowers, was able to restart trade in time for Mothers' Day.

"We had to think about how we could safely start supporting these businesses as well."

They bought some of the last stocks of clear perspex in the country from a fellow Foodstuffs supermarket in Tauranga.

It was another late night with builders getting checkouts moved and dividing walls installed to reopen the third checkout.

This meant they could serve up to 50 per cent more customers, helping them to get in and out more quickly, making their visit safer.

Peter found delivering to match demand most frustrating.

"It took a few weeks to source enough hand sanitiser to be able to install a complimentary dispenser at the entrance."

Another was that the store has always offered a home delivery service to the elderly and vulnerable but, being so busy, they no longer had the capacity to take on many more.

When Katikati Red Cross approached them offering to help, Peter said they leapt at the chance to develop a crucial relationship.

And, when the weather looked doubtful, they installed a queuing marquee for people to stay warm and dry.

A marquee was put up outside Four Square to help queuing customers stay dry.
A marquee was put up outside Four Square to help queuing customers stay dry.

Peter said, through it all, the biggest buzz for the team has been the customers stopping to say thanks for staying open, for expanding the range and for changing the checkouts to get people through faster.

"And to the person who called Newstalk ZB talkback praising the fast and friendly service at Katikati Four Square!

"We thank everyone for their #ShopLocal support. We know you have a choice, so we've risen to the challenge."