Super (market) heroes

Red Berry Supermarket owner Pratiksha Patel says her customers are keeping her going.

Pratiksha Patel is exhausted after working up to 18 hours a day through the Covid-19 crisis, but she and her husband Krishnaa are determined to continue serving their community.

The couple bought Cambridge’s Red Berry Supermarket (formerly Shakespeare St Four Square) last November from Krishnaa’s sister Dagsha and brother-in-law Shani.

“The Cambridge store’s been in our family almost 25 years and we are here to help; we love to help people,” Pratiksha said.

“If we didn’t have to work I would be sitting at home and spending some time with my children. I would be a lot happier doing that than this, but this is something I can do for my community. We have so many elderly customers who love to shop here…I just want to look after them.”

Pratiksha and Krishnaa own a second supermarket in Matamata and have been opening their stores at 7am, closing at 7pm, then working until about midnight to unload deliveries and restock shelves.

While they need more employees, they are reluctant to hire at this time.

“We still haven’t made the decision if we would want anybody to work under these circumstances,” Pratiksha said.

The current situation had been “scary” for her entire team and all staff members had been given the option to stay at home on full pay if they didn’t feel safe. However everyone had chosen to remain working.

“I’m not so much scared [about catching the virus myself] as I am to take it home, because I have children at home, I have elderly people in [their] 70s at home,” Pratiksha said.

“We’re all like that, working on the front line.”

But her staff and family members, who were helping a lot, had been “wonderful”.

“They have been putting in all the hours they can, keeping customers safe as well as keeping the shop going.”

She said trying to find stock following recent panic buying, which had left shelves depleted and supermarkets around New Zealand scrambling for goods, had been “really stressful”.

“It was really unexpected so you’re not prepared for that situation, and all of a sudden you have to start providing for that busy period,” she said. “You don’t have enough time to arrange everything; you just have to think instantly. Every morning you have to face new challenges and think more. It’s just not easy.”

Competing with the buying power of “big supermarkets” has been particularly challenging and she has spent countless hours on the phone hunting down suppliers over recent weeks.

“You’re constantly thinking where can I get this from or who would have this?” she said. “We’re searching, searching all the time. It’s been really hard for us. And as a small, independent business it’s always difficult for us to compete with the big chains because we don’t have the same buying power. But we try to keep our prices aligned as much as we can.”

“It’s also been hard hearing stories from elderly customers and people who are struggling through this on their own. It’s been a very emotional time for all our staff.”

During week one of lockdown she went to huge lengths to get flour, personally driving to a supplier to buy it in bulk at “a very high price” and organising staff to pack it into 1kg plastic bags.

“I had to lift all these 20kg bags myself and load them into the truck because I just wanted to provide what I could for my customers,” Pratiksha said.

While most shoppers were happy to pay $4.99 per kilogram for the in-demand item, she and her staff were saddened to see the price discussed negatively on social media.

“We weren’t trying to exploit the situation – we just had to cover the extra costs of mileage, packaging and labour,” Pratiksha said.

“So we were really heartbroken to think people might suspect us of price gouging after we worked so hard, and continue to work so hard. I haven’t been able to see my family and children as much; when I leave the house my son and daughter are asleep, when I go back to home they are asleep so I don’t get to see them often.

“It’s also been hard hearing stories from elderly customers and people who are struggling through this on their own. It’s been a very emotional time for all our staff.”

To help, both Red Berry Supermarkets have been offering a priority delivery service for elderly and vulnerable people.

And while supermarket employees around New Zealand have been copping abuse from angry shoppers frustrated over product shortages, this had “thankfully” not happened in the Red Berry stores.

“Ninety-five per cent [of] customers have been really grateful, really polite and really nice, and that helps me keep going,” Pratiksha said.

“Even if I’m having a bad day, when I see my customers leaving the store happily my stress just disappears and I think ‘I can do more, I want to do more for them’.

“I would just like to say thank you to all our loyal customers and everybody who’s appreciated us for being here. I’ll always be thankful. They’ve been so patient and they’ve been so grateful. So I’d just like to thank all of them.”

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