Flu season is virtually inescapable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to 20% of the population gets the flu every year. If you don’t get sick, you probably live and work with people who do.

That can make the supermarket — one of the places you most want to think of as a sanitary place — a scary situation for shoppers in the height of flu season. Multiple click-bait articles detailing places to avoid during flu season mention the supermarket.

Retailers must act now to prepare for sick shoppers and employees. Failing to take action can make winter seem even longer than it is and, more importantly, can impact your store’s bottom line.

What should be immediate

Some tips are seemingly obvious.

“You should encourage and assist associates to get a seasonal flu vaccine several weeks before flu season hits,” says Paula Herald, technical consultant at The Steritech Institute, part of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Steritech. 

That means prime time for you and your employees to get the flu shot should be in September or October.

It’s also smart to find new ways to emphasize proper hand washing and glove use to prevent bare hand contact prior to flue season. This can be challenging, Herald says, but it’s important in keeping employees healthy.

You should also plan on limiting large group meetings.

“To reduce having large groups together that might spread a flu virus, consider communicating to employees through email or other electronic means,” Herald says.

What gets overlooked

While some tips are apparent, there are some common actions that many retailers may not consider, especially when it comes to preparing for the worst.

“Exploring staffing options and cross-training of employees to be prepared in the event of widespread flu or pandemic are important to planning for increased worker absenteeism due to flu illnesses,” Herald says. “Make decisions on a sick pay policy for employees to encourage them to stay home from work when sick. Talk with HR or your legal team. Many associates, especially those working part-time or several jobs to support family, may feel it necessary to continue working when sick.”

Furthermore, retailers should also be prepared for a shift in the landscape if a high percentage of their customers get sick.

If shoppers are ill with flu, they may turn to online shopping and pick-up or delivery options. Being prepared for these additional requests may require shifting some associates from checkout duties to assisting with online fulfillment.

“Also, during flu season, customers may shy away from crowds or contact with people and migrate to the self-checkouts,” Herald says. “Or they may shop during what are normally less busy times.”

Treat the possibility of a flu outbreak the same way you would an impending hurricane or snowstorm. Shoppers will stock up on items like packaged foods, bottled water, hand sanitizer, tissues and prepared meals from the deli.

It could also impact your entire supply chain.

“Flu can affect the entire population, even truck drivers that transport food to grocery stores,” Herald says. “ In the event of widespread flu across the country, distribution of food may be interrupted or slowed, causing stocking issues and shortages at grocery stores.  Identifying alternate suppliers or distributors options should be part of emergency planning.”

Help shoppers stay safe

While the flu is not considered a foodborne illness, ill customers and employees can transmit the flu when common touch points are contaminated and touched by others, who then touch their mouth, nose or eyes. 

So when it comes to front-of-house areas with high interactions — salad bars and other self-serve areas, for example — that pushes the focus onto keeping surfaces safe as much as the food protected.

Obvious calls to action include performing additional sanitizing of all potential contact surfaces in these areas as well as making sure hand sanitizer or wipes are available to shoppers. Use signs to encourage their use near self-service areas.

“Ensure all foods have utensils with handles out of food, or deli tissues,” Herald says. “And replace frequently. Do not give any excuse for the customer to use their hands.”

Some other tips Herald recommends include:

  • Confirm sneeze guards and any protective covers are in place at all times
  • Monitor food bars and remove and replace any food or utensil or single service item if potential contamination is observed
  • Consider dispensers for foods or condiments and toppings
  • Increase bathroom disinfecting frequency 

Keep your employees healthy

It should go without saying that a critical step in keeping your store and your shoppers as healthy as possible is making sure your employees are taking care of themselves.

As much as you might expect your stores to be filled with employees who are considerate enough to liberally use hand sanitizer and tissues, that’s not always the case. Furthermore, the supermarket industry is no exception when it comes to workers ignoring their flu symptoms in order to get to work and avoid using PTO.

“Remind employees of the wellness policy that says they can’t come to work when ill or with symptoms of foodborne illnesses,” Herald says. “Use this opportunity to also remind them that coming to work sick with flu may infect their fellow employees and possibly customers when they sneeze or cough.”

Make sure store leaders are actively coaching all of their workers.

Shoppers don’t want to see employees in the deli or meat department — or anywhere for that matter — handle their foods while coughing, sneezing or otherwise acting sick.

It’s also important to make sure all employees are trained, regardless of their normal interaction with fresh foods.

“Flu is not considered a foodborne illness, but if the associates trained in proper food safety practices cannot work because they are all ill with the flu, substitute or new employees may create food safety risks or increase management costs,” Herald says.

Merchandising matters

While product placement and merchandising aren’t necessarily the first things that come to mind when discussing food safety, they can play a key role in bracing your store for flu season.

Not all flu-stricken shoppers are able to send someone else to the store for them. The simple act of merchandising some key items — think chicken noodle soup, tissues, perhaps some items from the pharmacy department — at the front of the store can be a win-win.

Not only does this make life easier for your ill shopper, it lessens the chances that the shopper will spread their germs throughout the store, especially into areas with fresh foods and produce.