Capital Region

Heaping Helpings: Independent grocery stores adapt, pivot to endure pandemic

Gurbax Kaur (left) and Amrinder Singh (right), owners of Guru's Supermarket in Clifton Park.
Gurbax Kaur (left) and Amrinder Singh (right), owners of Guru's Supermarket in Clifton Park.

Grocery stores have always been essential, though that word took on a new meaning at the onset of the pandemic.

As people crowded into larger chain grocery stores — snapping up all the toilet paper and staple goods — smaller, independent grocery stores began to fill a different niche. And they had to adapt to do so.

At Guru’s Supermarket in Clifton Park, owners Gurbax Kaur and Amrinder Singh knew they needed to start offering delivery services. While they had just opened the store the previous fall, they pivoted and started doing as many delivery orders as they could manage, with the help of their two teenage daughters.

The community grocery store specializes in Indian food, from staples to specialty items, though the shelves are also stocked with fresh produce. When they started taking orders by phone last spring, Kaur and Singh found they sometimes needed to go outside the bounds of their store to get people what they needed.

“Somebody that was affected by COVID, she called and was looking for electrolyte drinks and she said, ‘There’s nobody that’s delivering,’ and I said ‘I will deliver to you. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get whatever you need,’ ” Kaur said. “I went and delivered it [at] nighttime for her after I closed the store. Twice, I was like, ‘I won’t even charge you.’ ”

The person had never been in the store before, but now regularly keeps in touch with Kaur. Similarly, Kaur and Singh have found that people who didn’t necessarily shop at Guru’s before the pandemic have become regulars during the crisis.

“We tried to help them with whatever products they needed,” Kaur said. “Our thing is, if they don’t find something in the store that they’re looking for, we’ll get it for them the next week. We do have a little sign-up there. If you don’t see something, ask. We will get it for you.”

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Throughout the pandemic, they’ve provided free deliveries for residents ages 80 and older, and plenty of curbside pickup orders. It helped keep the business going, but there were plenty of sourcing challenges.

“It was slow for us, the business was very slow. People weren’t restocking and [Singh] had to do a lot of running around to go get the stuff because we didn’t want our shelves to be empty. He went down to New Jersey and New York, had to keep himself safe, and then also [try] to help our customers get whatever they needed to feed their families,” Kaur said.

This spring, it’s gotten a bit easier to source products. Along with that, more customers have started shopping in the store.

“They’re feeling more comfortable now and a lot of people are getting vaccinated. There are still [a] few that we still do deliveries for. We do have some customers that are still afraid to come out, and there are some customers that have been with us since March that have been getting deliveries and we haven’t even met them yet,” Kaur said.

‘It allowed me to stay open’
Caroline Bardwell, owner of The Schenectady Trading Company, has experienced something similar. The Union Street establishment is part gift/souvenir shop, part grocery store specializing in locally made goods. Like Guru’s, it opened in 2019.

“More than 50% of my sales are grocery items. Sometimes it has been as much as 90% of my sales in the last year have been grocery items,” Bardwell said. “If I didn’t have that I don’t know what things would look like. It allowed me to stay open, first of all. I didn’t have to shut down. I already was a licensed grocery store, but I didn’t anticipate [how much] it would come in handy.”

During the past year, she’s added more food products and has offered delivery for nonrefrigerated items, as well as curbside pickup.

“I have regular customers who have never been in the store before. Some of them have been vaccinated and they’ve started coming in the store and shopping in person, but my best grocery customer has never been in the store before,” Bardwell said.

When she first opened, she stocked the shelves only with products made in Schenectady County. However, Bardwell quickly realized that people couldn’t make full meals with what was available in the store. During the pandemic, she began sourcing around the greater Capital Region, from baked goods from Our Daily Bread in Chatham to coffee from Electric City Roasters.

“That’s value, providing things they can’t get elsewhere, providing them in a way that suits their needs, and that’s changed for everybody,” Bardwell said. “So if I was only doing one of those things, say I closed my doors and didn’t let anybody in and said ‘You can call and we’ll bring it out to you,’ and that was just the model, that might work for some, but I’d be alienating a whole group of people who don’t want to shop that way.”

She’s also found that some people feel safer shopping at smaller establishments.

Indeed, according to a recent study from Statista, “despite the growth of major supermarket chains and the emergence of online food purchases, there is still a demand for independent grocery stores that meet the needs of local neighborhoods.”

Some of the most consistent sellers have been eggs, coffee, chocolate, dairy products and snack foods, according to Bardwell.

“People want to shop locally. They want to shop at small little stores. But you have to provide value. So my prices are not inflated. They’re very affordable,” Bardwell said. “I’m offering them convenience, source these things in one place. I can meet them wherever they’re at.”

It’s been a challenging year in a lot of ways, yet Bardwell has found hope in the numbers.

“Overall, I have increased my sales compared to 12 months ago. … I would expect the numbers to go up, but it’s very encouraging for non-COVID times. If I can do that with COVID, then when people are free to do whatever they want, they’re probably going to come. [I’ve] just got to get to the other side.”

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