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Festival Foods employee Mary Drehmel loads groceries into a customer’s car Monday at the 3007 Mall Drive store. The supermarket chain’s Click N Go pickup service has taken off since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Wisconsin.

With supermarkets among the most crowded places at this time of social distancing, many customers have turned to grocery pickup and delivery services to limit their exposure to other people.

Such services enable shoppers to limit face-to-face encounters by placing orders online and then having store employees deliver the groceries or place them in customers’ vehicles.

“We have seen our orders more than double for these services,” said Brian Stenzel, senior director of community involvement for De Pere-based Festival Foods.

As a result, time slots for the Click N Go service, as of 5 p.m. Monday, were booked until late Saturday afternoon at the Festival Foods store at 3007 Mall Drive in Eau Claire.

“We have added additional associates to assist with Click N Go orders and are working to keep waits to as minimal as possible,” Stenzel said.

Popular program

The situation is similar at Woodman’s Markets, where pickup orders are booked out for a week at the Altoona store. The Shop Woodman’s program has a capacity of 60 to 70 time slots a day in Altoona.

“It’s definitely been a popular service during the outbreak,” said Clint Woodman, president of the Janesville-based chain. “They only have so many people who pick up orders in the store, so orders are pretty backed up right now.”

By contrast, orders typically could be picked up the next day, and sometimes within four hours, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Wisconsin earlier this month.

At some point, Woodman’s in Altoona was so busy that the designated shoppers couldn’t make it through as fast as usual, forcing the store to “throttle it back a bit” by limiting the number of pickup slots, Woodman said.

The store has attempted to reserve most of its delivery slots, as well as shopping hours from 6 to 8 a.m. Wednesdays, for seniors and people at higher risk of serious complications from the new coronavirus.

Stocking up

Meanwhile, supermarkets continue to be flooded with customers stocking up in response to the national emergency.

While the demand for basic commodity items remains high, Stenzel said Festival executives aren’t seeing a food shortage at this time. The increase in traffic, however, has made it difficult for employees to fill shelves as fast as customers are emptying them, prompting the stores to address the issue by placing limits on how much of certain products can be purchased at one time.

“Festival Foods is continually receiving shipments of products on a regular basis to try to keep up with the demand with the goal of providing our guests with the items they need,” Stenzel said.

Woodman’s also has implemented limits on some products as a way to deal with tight supplies of toilet paper, water, canned goods and basic food items such as flour, sugar and rice, Woodman said.

“As those items become more readily available, we will take those limits off, but for now we want there to be something for everyone,” Woodman said, noting that shoppers generally can find what they need but may have to make do with alternative sizes or brands.

“At some point, everyone will have stocked up their pantry, their freezer and their refrigerator and things will calm down. But when that will be remains to be seen,” he said. “This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”

New restrictions

The surge showed no signs of letting up Monday and may even have accelerated a bit after Gov. Tony Evers announced further restrictions Monday morning on commerce and public activity. The “safer-at-home” order calls for closure of all non-essential businesses starting today and urges people to stay at home to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus that has killed four people in the state and infected more than 400.

“We’re getting smoked right now, probably because of the latest announcement,” Brooks Tellock, manager of Woodman’s in Altoona, said shortly after the news broke.

Festival and Woodman’s officials said reduced hours have helped buy time for employees to stock shelves overnight and take extra sanitizing steps.

Festival also has recommended that elderly guests and those with compromised immune systems visit stores in the first few hours of the day to benefit from the best possible conditions, Stenzel said.

In response to pleas from government and health officials for residents to practice social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus, Festival continues to encourage people in its stores to remain at least 6 feet apart and, when possible, has closed every other checkout lane to keep the appropriate distance between both guests and employees.

Through it all, employees have been selfless in working long hours in this time of need, Stenzel said.

“We have always taken our role as a neighbor and grocer very seriously,” he said. “Our associates’ dedication further shows this commitment in making sure people know we’re here to help and that families are getting the products they need during these days of uncertainty.”

Still, Festival’s 33 stores throughout the state are seeking to add full- and part-time workers, including permanent and temporary positions, to help meet the soaring demand.