In February, while the US government was still dithering and downplaying the potential impact that the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 might have, San Antonio-based grocery chain HEB was already running pandemic simulations and adapting the plans that helped it respond to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.
Yes, that’s correct: a regional grocery chain arguably did better advance planning than our government did and is now better equipped to handle the coronavirus pandemic that has left more than 80,000 Americans infected so far. Texas Monthly has the story about how HEB management used its experience with natural disasters to get ahead of the outbreak. Justen Noakes, director of emergency preparedness, explained:
“So when did we start looking at the coronavirus? Probably the second week in January, when it started popping up in China as an issue. We’ve got interests in the global sourcing world, and we started getting reports on how it was impacting things in China, so we started watching it closely at that point. We decided to take a harder look at how to implement the plan we developed in 2009 into a tabletop exercise. On February 2, we dusted it off and compared the plan we had versus what we were seeing in China, and started working on step one pretty heavily.”
Yes, February 2nd, which is even before President Trump’s statement that the virus would “disappear like a miracle.” It saw what was coming, so HEB starting putting restrictions on purchases before panic shopping had gone into full swing in most areas:
The company began limiting the amounts of certain products customers were able to purchase in early March; extended its sick leave policy and implemented social distancing measures quickly; limited its hours to keep up with the needs of its stockers; added a coronavirus hotline for employees in need of assistance or information; and gave employees a $2 an hour raise on March 16, as those workers, many of whom are interacting with the public daily during this pandemic, began agitating for hazard pay.
In addition to its advance planning for H1N1 a decade ago, HEB drew on its experience dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, according to Texas Monthly. One important lesson, Noakes said, was paying attention to what its customers wanted and being transparent about what it was doing:
“The most important lesson for us is to listen to what’s going on in our stores. When we started seeing the N95 masks and the sanitizers, we took that as a good sign that our customers were concerned about what was going on, and that’s what really spurred us to activate our program. That’s the biggest one—to make sure that we’re really paying attention to what our customer does, and to actually respond to it. As we continue to maneuver our supply chain and support our stores during COVID-19, we’ll bring some lessons learned and tools out of that into hurricane season.”
The story is really an interesting dive into how a well-run business (cough) can prepare for an unprecedented situation and take lessons from what’s worked well in the past. Bonus: a mariachi band showed up randomly to play at an HEB store (it is Texas, after all).