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From lineups to floor tape to passwords, Winnipeg businesses adapt to new era of shopping at a distance

The pet store is open on an overcast Winnipeg afternoon. A middle-aged woman slips inside the brightly lit room, but she’s urged to turn around as soon as she cracks the door.

“Two at a time, if you don’t mind,” Tracy Johnson, the store owner, says politely.

The customer nods and steps back. It is unconventional to turn shoppers away when the store is nearly empty — but then, these are unconventional times.

On Wednesday, Manitoba officials began enforcing a two-week shutdown of all non-essential businesses to limit the transmission of COVID-19 in Manitoba.

The contagious coronavirus is forcing those businesses that can still open their doors to reimagine themselves. That includes a requirement that they ensure customers can keep their distance from each other. 

At the Pet Valu at the Dominion Square strip mall in Winnipeg, Johnson does that by allowing allowing only two customers into her store at a time.

‘What can we grab for you?’

Her team has strung blue tape from one shelving unit to the next to create temporary walls. On the floor, green tape instructs customers where they can stand in the small foyer.

Browsing is discouraged. Rather than asking if they can help you find something, sales associates ask a new question: “What can we grab for you?”

It was awkward at first to physically separate everyone, Johnson says. Her normally customer-driven employees are limited in what they can do, but the shoppers get it, she says. Some have poked their head inside simply to say thanks.

“Thanks for working during this time,” said one woman as she left, lifting her order from a stand specifically for pickups.

“You guys are heroes.”

A sign on the front door of the Pet Valu location in St. Boniface informs customers of the limit of two customers at once. Many of their customers have taken the sudden adjustments to their shopping experience in stride, owner Tracy Johnson says. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Christie Froese bought a little more cat food than normal. She’s trying to limit her trips out, while Manitobans are told to stay home whenever possible. 

“It was weird,” she said of seeing the foyer setup at first. But “I’m willing to do it, for sure.”

In this new age of shopping and physical distancing, businesses are morphing — almost overnight — to accommodate orders that have tightened as the reported cases of COVID-19 surge.

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Floor stickers are common in big chain stores like Shoppers Drug Mart to preach the need for separation. 

Inside the store, the pace seems slower than it was before the pandemic. Now, the fast-walking customers stick out. You don’t see hurried customers squeezing themselves between shopping carts and stocked shelves because they cannot wait.

Restaurants, meanwhile — which can now only open to provide pickup and delivery options — have bunched together every table and chair as if they’re closing up for good.

“I hope to survive and pay rent,” Yong Kim tells a visitor, as he slumps into his chair. He isn’t seeing many orders at Honba Sushi, a Japanese eatery only offering take-out due to the provincial orders.

He estimates business has slipped 70 per cent since the pandemic began.

It’ll be at least two weeks until he’s able to serve diners inside again.

“There’s not enough [money] for our family, our groceries,” he says, though still smiling. 

During this time of physical distancing, only one shopper is allowed inside the Best Buy in St. James at a time. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Outside the Best Buy in St. James, however, there are lineups — a familiar sight on Boxing Day or for the release of big video games. But this isn’t because of either of those.

“You can’t even enter,” Dwayne Sumner says, seemingly amused by the situation. His girlfriend receives her laptop without stepping foot in the store — the only space that’s open is the lobby between doors. 

Outside, people are spaced at least a metre apart, guided by instructive tape beneath their feet. The scene is eerily quiet as people stand. No one talks.

It was a unique shopping day for Dwayne Sumner and his girlfriend. Staff had to retrieve the laptop and headphones she’d ordered inside the store, since customers aren’t allowed to enter. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Business is brisk at a nearby fabric store.

“It’s Ginger,” a woman hollers from her vehicle by way of introduction. 

The customers who stop at Marshall Fabrics are given a password for parking lot pickup of the orders they’ve placed.

It was “Fuzzy Bunny” for one person, says manager Beth Syrnyk. Someone else’s password was “Elvis.”

Staff are using their phones to take pictures of their products. They’re communicating over Facebook, Syrnyk says, rather than shoulder-to-shoulder, in the same aisle with their customers.

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It’s not for everybody. Arlene Wiebe wishes she could touch and feel the fabric she wants for her dining room chairs, rather than looking at a picture. 

“I have to see what’s available,” she says before heading home.

Susan Jensen Stubbe, who owns Jensen’s Nursery and Garden Centre, understands the appeal of touching and feeling the product you’re buying. She runs a greenhouse, after all, which is using the same no-contact delivery system as Marshall Fabrics. 

“Even if they can still buy their plants,” she says, “there’s not going to be as much satisfaction as other years.”

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