49th Parallel was an early adopter of Plexiglas shields, and required staff to wear face masks. (49th Parallel photo)

49th Parallel was an early adopter of Plexiglas shields, and required staff to wear face masks. (49th Parallel photo)

49th Parallel continues to grow in spite of pandemic

The biggest challenge of the pandemic has been keeping shelves stocked at 49th Parallel stores

After everything that’s happened in 2020, 49th Parallel CEO Peter Richmond says he’s given up on making projections.

Business at 49th Parallel Grocers has continued to grow, but that growth has not come easily, or as Richmond expected.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, 49th Parallel grocery stores were faced with a short and steep learning curve. They were forced to make adjustments to meet public health orders, WorkSafe BC practices, and customer demand.

“There definitely were some hectic times trying to issue new policies and make sure everybody was on the same page, and aware of what was important,” Richmond said.

49th Parallel was an early adopter of Plexiglas shields at their tills, and acted quickly to create enhanced cleaning policies for belts, baskets, and buggies. They also added additional cleaning procedures at night, and throughout the day.

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Staff have been required to wear masks for months; however, customers were not required to wear masks until the recent provincial mask mandate went into effect.

Demand for 49th’s home delivery service increased ‘at least threefold’ during the pandemic. 49th offers home delivery service at all their locations on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The increase in demand for home delivery service was similar across every store.

“We were probably doing on a normal week in Ladysmith maybe 30 deliveries a week,” Richmond said. “That went well over 100 some weeks. Things have slowed down throughout the summer and early fall, but they are picking up again now.”

Local volunteer groups stepped up to help take delivery orders and shop to help 49th meet the increased demand. Richmond said that 49th was very fortunate to have those volunteers on hand.

One of the biggest challenges for 49th has been keeping the shelves stocked. Suppliers are having trouble keeping up with demand, and producers are operating with limited capacity due to the pandemic. Disruptions to the supply chain have left grocery stores like 49th with up to 40 percent shortages on their orders.

Richmond said that 49th has benefited from being an independent grocer, and has relied on a network of good suppliers to keep the shelves stocked.

“We’re able to purchase from a number of different sources. If one person ran out of something we could look to one of our other suppliers to replace that product. We were able to keep our shelves fairly stocked.”

49th Parallel did institute a limit on certain items like toilet paper, and cleaning supplies to make sure that customers had fair access to those products.

Overall, sales are up, but costs for the business have also increased.

“We’ve invested in our staff… we were one of the first to start pandemic pay for staff, and we kept in longer than most. It’s been hard to manage the added cost of extra people, and the demand on the delivery side of things,” Richmond said.

Increased demand on the business has meant that 49th has continued to grow, and add new employees. Richmond says the company is looking to bring on more new hires as they shift into the winter season.

49th Parallel will be opening a new location in Duncan in February. COVID-19 has altered the design of the store in terms of queuing lines, Plexiglas barriers, arrows, and other floor markers.

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Normally, 49th sponsors a host of community events, and hosts a community fun day outside of their locations. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of those events, but 49th has found other causes to donate those monies to. They have continued to donate to local food banks, and made a donation to Tour de Rock.

As the business continues to grow, Richmond said that 49th will find more ways to give back to the communities where they operate.

For now, 49th is focused on providing a friendly shopping experience, and keeping their communities fed — something Richmond credits to 49th’s frontline staff.

“Our frontline employees really need to be commended. They’ve worked so hard, and stepped up their game. Business has definitely been busy, and a little more hectic and stressful for all involved. The front end team has really stepped up and done an amazing job.”