With the new millennium just a few days away, supermarket operators are seeking to make final preparations for Y2K while allaying public concerns.
The key word is uncertainty.
So even as they boost inventories to prepare for any contingencies, supermarkets are hoping shoppers end up treating this New Year's Eve like any other New Year's Eve, or, at worst, like a natural disaster.
At Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., "We're aware of the possibility that panic buying may occur," Chris Ahearn, director of communications and public affairs, told SN, "but we're not projecting that it will. We don't know what people will do, but we've been working with vendors and selling some items in caseload quantities through the fall, including canned meats and vegetables, and we know vendors are ready to provide additional products if we see any increase in purchases.
"But we have no Y2K signage, to avoid adding to any potential panic buying."
Jitney-Jungle Stores of America, Jackson, Miss., is preparing for Y2K "as we would prepare for a hurricane or other natural disaster," said Ron Johnson, chairman and chief executive officer. "From a merchandising standpoint, that means we are distributing extra amounts of batteries, water, candles, canned meats and other staple goods to all our stores.
"But we haven't seen any indications of heavier than usual buying. The local news is telling people that all the bang and sizzle that was supposed to happen has gone away. There was some negative buildup for a while, but we're not seeing anything now."
He said Jitney is considering running messages in its newspaper ads to reassure customers they have nothing to worry about.
Chicago-area retailers are offering such reassurance with bag stuffers and in-store signage that urge consumers to prepare for Y2K as they would for an incoming winter storm or potential power outage.
According to Andrea Brands, vice president of public affairs for Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill., a division of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., "We want all our customers to know we're prepared for Y2K as we are for any emergency and that we plan to have plenty of food on the shelves, as always."
Ertharin Cousin-Moore, vice president for government and community affairs at Jewel Food Stores, Melrose Park, Ill., a division of Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, said, "The holidays are a busy time, so we recommend that people get their grocery shopping done early to avoid lines and save themselves the stress of being rushed at the last minute.
"Customers shouldn't feel the need to stockpile food. Instead, they should do just a little preparation and then relax and enjoy the holiday."
Friedman's, Butler, Pa., ran a one-week "Y2K stock-up sale" earlier this month "because we felt customers would be stocking up anyway," said Carole Bitter, president and chief executive officer of the seven-store group.
The copy for Friedman's print ads sought to allay customer fears, proclaiming, "Our stores are 100% Y2K compliant, and we don't anticipate any year-end problems."
According to Bitter, "We don't want to panic our customers, but if they're going to buy early, we want them to buy with us. We believe people in the semi-rural areas we serve will be buying seven to 10 days' worth of food anyway and use it up in January, so we had the stock-up sale two weeks before the holidays so we could get our shelves ready for the Christmas and New Year's rush and smooth out our business."
One concession to Y2K, Bitter said, is that, for the first time, Friedman's has put a cutoff date on all deli, bakery and catering orders. "We set the cutoff and we're already just about saturated," she told SN earlier this month.
Some customers are going to ignore any guidance the industry or others try to give, Don Van Winkle, president of Van Winkle's IGA, Alamogordo, N.M., told SN. He said a handful of customers have been stockpiling goods "in preparation for a disaster -- a fringe element who sees this as a doomsday scenario -- and we don't do anything to dissuade them."
D&W Food Centers, Grand Rapids, Mich., is taking a low-key approach to Y2K, Ron Cox, vice president for marketing, told SN. "We're maintaining higher than normal inventories, but we haven't seen any major stockups, and we're not doing anything on the promotional side to stir up any fears."
Raley's Supermarkets, West Sacramento, Calif., is seeking to reassure customers on its Web site that "stores will operate normally and other essentials will be readily available, as they are today."
Writing on the chain's Web site, Scott Langdoc, Raley's chief information officer and year-2000 executive sponsor, said, "It is most likely any effects from the year-2000 problem will be minor and localized by region or particular food products." Kroger Co., Cincinnati, said it is increasing inventories at its divisions -- particularly pharmaceuticals, batteries and food staples -- "in anticipation of customer needs for the millennium," a spokesman told SN.
Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J., is also stocking up with extra inventory, a spokesman told SN, "because we expect heavier buying on canned goods and staples, and we still anticipate some customer apprehension as the media hypes Y2K. But we're not planning to put any additional help on [at store level], though we have a core of operations and administrative people on standby in case we have problems with utilities, refrigeration or the phones."
Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., said it is stocking up on bottled water, flashlights, batteries and shelf-stable milk in case of power outages or other problems that prevent customers from getting to stores.
However, Jennifer Bush, a company spokeswoman, said she doesn't foresee any run on merchandise. "Unlike a hurricane, this isn't last minute," she said, "and we're not anticipating a complete shutdown at any level where customers cannot get what they need."
Tim Hammonds, president and CEO of Food Marketing Institute, Washington, said past experience will enable the industry to take Y2K in stride. "The supermarket industry is well accustomed to operating in the most trying of circumstances, including earthquakes and ice storms," he said.
According to Thomas K. Zaucha, president and CEO of the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., "From snowstorms to natural disasters, the grocery industry prides itself on being prepared to serve the consumer. The time and resources being invested in preparation for Y2K should allay any concerns that consumers may have regarding the continued availability of safe, quality food."
John Block, president of Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., said, "It is clear FDI members have been working hard to make sure potential problems resulting from Y2K computer concerns do not affect their ability to serve their customers and America's consumers. We have every reason to be confident that food and related products will be available to grocery stores without interruption."