Here's how to beat the rush for a safer shopping experience.

Karla Walsh
April 14, 2020
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If you've been following along with our COVID-19 coverage, you probably know it's not the food itself that's worrisome about grocery shopping during the coronavirus pandemic—it's the people you encounter along the way. You know, those who refuse to honor the six-foot social distancing rule, weave through the aisles "just browsing," aren't wearing a mask and are potentially spreading germs all along the way.

Getty / RapidEye

The coronavirus is spread from person to person through respiratory droplets, and according to estimates from experts on the president's Coronavirus Task Force, anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of people who carry it (and can potentially spread it) exhibit no symptoms at all. That's why the CDC has drafted some thorough advice about running essential errands, including going to the bank, ordering takeout and shopping for groceries.

One of the CDC's top tops for safer supermarket runs? Plan your trip when fewer people will be shopping alongside you. So how do you figure out when that is, exactly?

6 Tips to Avoid the Crowds at the Grocery Store

Go early.

Many major supermarkets, including Trader Joe's, Costco and Kroger, now have the first hour reserved for elderly and immunocompromised shoppers. If you don't fit those criteria, aim to arrive about 30 minutes after the store opens for the general population. That way, the early shoppers can safely finish their trips and you can still score what you need without running into the potential pre-lunch crowd. Bonus: Many stores restock shelves overnight, so you're more likely to find that elusive bag of flour or pack of toilet paper you need.

Call ahead.

Since not every store is quiet first thing in the morning, it can't hurt to call customer service to inquire about what they've noticed as generally slower times.

Aim for Wednesday or Thursday.

The analytics company Retail Aware found that Wednesdays and Thursdays before 10 a.m. are the least-trafficked times. Weekends and weekdays between 4 to 6 p.m. tend to be busier. Mid-week shopping will likely benefit your budget, too: Bread, snacks and beer are often priced lower these days, and some stores release their latest coupon offers on these days.

Opt for boutique markets over megastores.

You'll likely have better luck avoiding large quantities of people at smaller specialty groceries than the big chains and warehouse stores. Try your neighborhood Asian, Mexican, Indian or Mediterranean shops to score flavor-packed ingredients while fighting fewer crowds.

Get app-y.

Yes, there's an app for that. Actually, it hasn't been officially launched yet, so there will be an app for that. OpenTable is working with grocery stores across the country to coordinate "reserved shopping times" via their reservation app. "Fewer crowds and fewer lines means better social distancing, which is how we can all work to stop the spread of coronavirus," OpenTable explains of the motivation behind pivoting their restaurant reservation platform to the skip-the-lines app that will be free for both retailers and consumers.

Or try curbside pickup or delivery.

If you can nab one of the coveted slots in the schedule, your safest way to shop is online so you don't have to enter the store at all. Check your local options for curbside pickup (where the store staff "shops" for you and loads it into your car no-contact-style) or delivery via the store, Instacart, Shipt, Amazon Fresh or other grocery shopping delivery services.