The sales have started. Armies of seasonal workers are being signed up. But as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, national retailers such as Target and Best Buy and grocers such as Cub Foods have had to place safety as a top priority for the holiday season.
Crowds will only increase through the remainder of the year as consumers scramble to buy gifts, food and decor.
And the retailers will not only have to keep those customers safe but also their own front-line workers — the cashiers, store clerks and delivery people relied upon to keep aisles stocked and orders fulfilled.
Late last month, Target CEO Brian Cornell told media during a call that Target was ready for the holidays with plans to limit crowds. More recently Best Buy outlined details of its safety plan, which included digital queuing.
But still, some workers remain worried.
Most Target headquarters employees "could work from home the rest of the year, but the workers in stores and distribution centers don't get that luxury," said Adam Ryan, a part-time Target employee in Virginia who helps lead a loose group of employees called Target Workers Unite. "We don't get to work from home."
Local retail giants Target and Best Buy as well as major grocers in the Twin Cities including Cub Foods, Kowalski's Market and Lunds & Byerlys don't publicize COVID infections of their employees, making it hard to gauge the full extent of the virus' impact on its workers. Yet the number of infections for the general public continues to climb.
Last week, Minnesota reached a record of daily diagnosed infections with the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Nationwide, coronavirus infection cases have topped 100,000 a day for the first time.
The Minnesota Department of Health has directed businesses to have their own COVID-19 preparedness plans, which include contact-tracing protocols to track infected employees contacts with other workers and hopefully help prevent the virus' spread.
Ryan has been publicly critical of Target and said he wants the Minneapolis-based retailer to do more to protect its workers by further restricting capacity and providing more compensation to its workers. Since the end of the summer, his store has alerted him about a handful of positive COVID-19 cases among his co-workers, he said.
Target said in a statement to the Star Tribune it has seen its employees' "cases rise and fall in line with national trends." Target said it has been transparent with its teams on infections by informing them when employees test positive.
"We work quickly to deep clean and disinfect the store or facility, follow guidance from the CDC and provide information that any health department requests of us," Target said. "We'll continue to be transparent with our team and share the steps we take after learning about a positive case."
Target, like other retailers, has provided protective equipment such as masks and gloves to its staff for months.
The retailer also has offered one-time bonuses, the most recent $200 bonuses were to be doled out by the beginning of this month.
Target also announced additional measures to try to maintain safety during the holidays, such as allowing customers to show a PIN code on their smartphones through a car window — instead of employees scanning a bar code — to confirm orders.
Best Buy, based in Richfield, recently outlined details of its safety plan.
Each store will have a "customer experience host" at the front to direct shoppers and manage lines.
The electronics chain said when appropriate it could limit store hours, reduce occupancy and even close stores to foot traffic and shift to curbside-only pickup service depending on community infection outbreaks like it did earlier in the year.
Best Buy also will allow customers to use digital queues instead of physically waiting to get help from an employee.
In anticipation of the release of the new Xbox and PlayStation game consoles this week, stores will open early and customers who preordered will be able to make appointments to pick up their systems if they would like.
"As has been the case throughout the pandemic, and especially true this holiday season, nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers and employees," Best Buy said in a blog post.
With large crowds discouraged, area grocery stores also are expecting increased traffic as people pick up food for holiday meals.
The supermarkets are recommending that customers consolidate shopping trips to minimize exposure, visit during nonpeak hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and limit the number of shoppers per household on each trip if possible.
Nearly all are expanding hours to distribute shoppers more evenly.
Most Cub stores remain open 24 hours for customers who want to shop after midnight. The majority of Cub stores also will be open on Thanksgiving Day until early afternoon for last-minute shoppers.
"It mitigates the rush for customers who can shop later," said Mike Stigers, chief executive for Cub.
Kowalski's Market stores will open all registers as the holidays near. A mobile checkout on wheels also will be available to minimize wait times for customers with a smaller number of items.
The supermarket is encouraging customers to use its delivery and curbside services when possible. To encourage curbside pickup, Kowalski's will waive fees from Nov. 21-25 and Dec. 19-24.
Besides Christmas, Kowalski's stores are giving their employees a paid day off on Dec. 26 to spend more time with their families. The extra $2 an hour for hazard pay due to the pandemic, which was slated to end Oct. 6, will continue through Jan. 3.
Lunds & Byerlys stores will extend hours of operation on the two days before Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, according to Curtis Funk, senior vice president of merchandising. Hours will be 5 a.m. to midnight on Nov. 24-25 and Dec. 22-23. Hours will be limited on Christmas Eve.
"We'll also double up on the number of grocery baggers so customers can move through the lines more quickly," he said. "This year, we'll also empty out our corporate offices on the two days before Thanksgiving and Christmas so those employees can help stock, find items for customers, or whatever's needed."
Hy-Vee stores are among the first in the Twin Cities to implement shopping cart disinfecting stations. They will be in place by mid-November in all of its Twin Cities full-line stores.
"We have also found ways to make our cleaning more efficient, as we have with the rollout of our new Sterile Cart units at more than 200 of our stores to quickly and consistently clean carts with a hospital-grade disinfectant," said spokeswoman Tina Potthoff.
Sterile Cart, manufactured by Izza Manufacturing in Buffalo, Minn., uses a spray system with a dry-in-place disinfectant in a 6-foot-by-4-foot box that eliminates the need to wipe down each cart manually.
Kowalski's is testing a similar system at the Cub store it owns in White Bear Township.
Grocery-store workers are important members of the community and should be protected, said Jennifer Christensen, president of the Local 1189 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents more than 10,000 union workers in retail including grocery.
"I know that my folks feel like they should be paid better with the pandemic coming back," said Christensen, about her union members. "I think people are apprehensive."
To help workers, shoppers should follow health protocols like wearing masks, Christensen said.
"Customers really need to think about when they go into a store, keeping the workers safe," she said.