Shopping in the 21st century at Walmart and Lowe’s

Once upon a time, we Americans would walk boldly into a Walmart or Lowe’s, grab a shopping cart, troll the aisles getting whatever we could need or want, and then head to the cash register, to stand packed in line with myriad other people to checkout. Those days seem like distant memories.

Although I’ve tried putting off shopping as long as I could, today I had to go to a Lowe’s and a Walmart because I’d run out of a few essentials. I’d originally intended to place an order with Walmart, and pick up my merchandise in the parking lot, but the order system is backed up. In any event, I’d rather have that service available for elderly or otherwise vulnerable people. While I’m getting on in years, I’m not there yet!

Coincidentally, this marked the first day of Walmart’s new operating system to deal with the risk of COVID-19:

Starting Saturday, we will limit the number of customers who can be in a store at once. Stores will now allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet at a given time, roughly 20 percent of a store’s capacity.

To manage this restriction, the associates at a store will mark a queue at a single-entry door (in most cases the Grocery entrance) and direct arriving customers there, where they will be admitted one-by-one and counted. Associates and signage will remind customers of the importance of social distancing while they’re waiting to enter a store – especially before it opens in the morning.

Once a store reaches its capacity, customers will be admitted inside on a “1-out-1-in” basis.

Shopping Inside the Store

We’ll also institute one-way movement through our aisles next week in a number of our stores, using floor markers and direction from associates. We expect this to help more customers avoid coming into close contact with others as they shop.

We’ll continue to put signage inside our stores to remind customers of the need to maintain social distancing – especially in lines. And once customers check out, they will be directed to exit through a different door than they entered, which should help lessen the instances of people closely passing each other.

My local Walmart did everything except institute one-way movement. (I don’t know why it didn’t do the one-way system). Because I thought I might face being funneled through the store, before I left the house, I used my Walmart App to figure out on which aisle I would find the things I needed. I then used the store map (which I can find only on the App, not online) so that I would know how to move through the store in just one direction.

I already had a rough idea where things were, but I often find myself forgetting something and having to walk back and forth throughout the story. Usually, I consider doing so exercise. However, today, if the store had been set up for one-way traffic, trying to double back would have been impossible and I would have lost my opportunity to buy something I really needed.

Thankfully, when I got to Walmart, the line was short and I had to wait outside only a few minutes. Next time, I’ll put on sunscreen and wear a hat before I go, because I do not do well standing in the sun — and the Southeast is nothing without spring and summer sunlight.

When I was done shopping, I opted to use self-check, simply to minimize the number of times my groceries would be touched. Then, once I got home, I wiped all the containers down with a bleach solution before bringing them into the house. Yes, that’s neurotic. And the truth is that I believe my risk for COVID-19 is extremely low, in part because I enjoy good health and, in part, because I live in an area that (so far) has only been lightly touched by COVID-19. Nevertheless, going the extra mile seemed like a small enough step to keep my risk vanishingly low, rather than just extremely low.

Lowe’s had also put into place new measures for handling customers (as well as for keeping employees deservedly happy):

We are temporarily increasing wages by $2 an hour for every full-time, part-time and seasonal hourly store, contact center and supply chain associates for hours they work throughout the month of April in the U.S. and Canada.

We will be closing all stores at 7 p.m. daily to ensure additional time to replenish essential products and thoroughly clean and sanitize our stores daily.

We are making masks and gloves available to all associates in the workplace who want them. As previously shared, all N95 medical masks were placed on a stop sale and are being donated to hospitals to protect frontline healthcare workers, along with other personal protective equipment for first responders in our communities.

We developed an app to implement a new customer limit protocol, available now on associates’ handheld devices. Each store manager can now monitor foot traffic and limit entrance based on CDC and local guidelines.

We are enhancing our social distancing protocols by adding dedicated social distancing ambassadors who will be responsible for monitoring customer flow in our garden centers and front-end areas and enforce customer limits to allow proper social distancing.

We also made substantial updates to our store floor layouts to further support the CDC’s guidelines for social distancing, such as opening up aisle space by removing displays. These changes will make it easier for both associates and customers to get the items they need quickly and safely. Specific examples include:

Removed product from the main aisle to help maintain safe distance. 

Removed racking and tables in other aisles to open up space.

Expanded the area for customers leveraging our Buy Online, Pick Up In Store option or making a return

Added floor markers spaced 6-feet apart to help guide customers

We have installed customized Plexiglass shields at all points of sale to protect our cashiers and customer service associates working the return desk, one of the first retailers to do so.

We increased third-party cleaning shifts to provide incremental cleaning in our stores, beyond already enhanced daily cleaning efforts.

We shipped an additional 10,000 truckloads of essential products during this period to replenish our stores.

The local Lowe’s complied with these requirements. I was on the garden center side of the store, so I don’t know what was going on for customers on the other side of the store, but the garden side was indeed organized along the lines set out above. And boy, were there lines! I stood in line for half an hour to buy a garden hose to replace a broken one. (And yes, it was a necessity for a variety of plants that need more water than the automatic sprinklers can provide.)

Here’s the way I would sum up my experience shopping today: It was inconvenient and had a foreign feel to it. While the shelves were all well-stocked (except for the paper goods and disinfectants in Walmart, where supply still lags behind demands), the freedom to which I, as an American, am accustomed was sorely lacking.

Having said that, there was something very American (or maybe very Southern) going on: People were all-around good-natured about the inconvenience. The store clerks were so hard at work in both Lowe’s and Walmart. They were stocking shelves, cleaning carts, moving customers, offering help, and checking people out as hard as they possibly could, despite their bizarre new working conditions. I was impressed and thanked all of the employees with whom I came into contact.

My fellow customers were great too. They didn’t complain about the inconvenience, the missing products, or the long lines. Regardless of race, color, creed, country of origin, or sex, there was very much a spirit of “we’re all in this together.” I was proud of my fellow citizens out here near Charleston.

Having said that, this is an unsustainable situation. The big-box stores can only carry out for so long at this rate and the small stores can’t carry on at all. Now that the CDC has finally figured out that masks are the way to go, we need to shift from having everyone quarantined at home and start having people essentially quarantined behind their own masks:

And yes, I fully understand that masks will not prevent everyone from getting the infection. Still, they’ll do something just as important, and do it without destroying the economy: They’ll prevent people with COVID-19, especially those who are asymptomatic and have no idea they’re shedding contagious, from giving the infection to others.

With COVID-19, it turns out that the amount of virus (i.e, the “viral load”) that comes your way is a significant factor in whether you get sick and how sick you get. That’s why hospital employees who are surrounded by the virus need those N95 masks so much more than the rest of us do. They’re moving through a sea of COVID-19. We are not.

Outside of the hospital, though, the most important thing is to prevent sick people from exhaling the virus into the air or onto objects. If they have a mask, the virus stays with them, rather than escaping to infect someone else.

Of course, this system works only if we all play. We have to be a nation of Three Musketeers: All for one and one for all. If we all play the mask game, we can come out of our homes and go back to work. It would be even better if, in addition to playing the mask game, those who are high risk (the elderly and those with other conditions) sheltered at their homes.

Regarding masks, I haven’t sewed in years. I learned as a child but didn’t like it. I prefer knitting.

Nevertheless, having moved into a new house, back in February I bought a simple sewing machine that was on super-duper sale at Walmart. My plan at the time was to make curtains. Of course, I haven’t yet followed through on that plan. With the sewing machine in place, though, I’m now in a position to make masks.

This seems like a very easy pattern:

Regarding that pattern, if you’re going to make a mask, I recommend that you use three layers, rather than two. Even better, a friend told me to use non-woven interfacing as the inside, third layer. Apparently shop towels work well but not all brands — and, in any event, they’re already sold out too. People are also using industrial filters for protective masks.

Speaking of sold out, I bought the last interfacing at my local Walmart. This means  I have a moral obligation not to sit on my purchases. Instead, I have to sew masks and distribute some of them to my elderly neighbors.

If you don’t have elastic (which is also sold out all over the place), here is how you can make a mask using old-fashioned string ties. I have grosgrain ribbon on order for the ties: