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Located in the Charlotte metropolitan area, Harris Teeter serves a diverse population in a variety of ways. It functions as a typical grocery store, but it also contains a pharmacy, Starbucks, bar, meal stations, and a space for dining and working. My regular visits to Harris Teeter encouraged me to dive deeper into the behavior of its customers. The establishment is often busy with people shopping, eating, and working, but I was drawn to how this had changed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. My expectations included face coverings, greater distances between shoppers, and fewer interactions between people. I dove into my research question: How has COVID-19 impacted human behavior and movement in grocery stores?


Background Information

March of 2020 was life-altering for most of the United States. Due to COVID-19, the nation faced an economic shutdown. Nearly every business was forced to close, except those deemed “essential.” Most people quarantined in their homes, but grocery stores remained open as a necessity. This sudden change in daily life was the inspiration for my study, but I needed to know how easily people’s behavior would be influenced. In a 2014 study completed by Foster and his collaborators, it was found that grocery shoppers were easily manipulated by variables such as advertisement and item placement. Customers were statistically more likely to purchase healthier food options when it was strategically marketed (p. 1366). This suggests that human behavior is extremely impressionable. If simple modifications could predispose one to different purchasing habits, a global pandemic may have the same capabilities.


Observational Data and Analysis

When I visited Harris Teeter, the store was busy but not overly crowded. Immediately, I noticed the “mask required” sign taped to the entrance. Masked grocery shoppers seemed to be particularly cautious at first glance. Although, upon further observation, it appeared that comfort took priority over safety.

The greatest deviation in behavior was across age groups. Surprisingly, nearly every young person in the store was wearing a mask properly and distancing themselves from others. Most of the elderly population, known to be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, followed similar precautions. The most alarming population were those considered middle-aged. These customers were bustling through the store without regard for the space of others, and their masks often drooped below their noses. One middle-aged man was even jogging to the refrigerated section for a single carton of sour cream. Their haste could have been an attempt to limit exposure, but I believe it reflects the busy lives of the middle-aged population as they balance careers and family.

Along with the older customers, other high-risk populations proceeded with caution. Specifically, two customers in wheelchairs, who could have had underlying health conditions, appeared to be especially careful. Additionally, every racial minority I encountered was masked. According to the CDC, racial minorities have had over twice as many deaths related to COVID-19 as the white population (2020). I found that middle-aged white people were most likely to go without a mask, endangering the health of those around them. Everyone seated at the bar fell under this category, feeling comfortable enough to interact with one another with no face coverings and only a single chair between them.

Harris Teeter employees prioritized the satisfaction of their customers first. Workers were in close, friendly conversation with shoppers. They seemed to treat the customers equally, regardless of whether or not they were following COVID-19 guidelines. I spoke to Omar, a Harris Teeter employee, who stated that he does not immediately notice whether or not a customer is wearing a mask, and he is eager to help them regardless. While I respected his dedication to customer service, Omar’s response did sound fabricated, as I doubt he would speak poorly about the establishment. I assumed the employees would instinctively protect their own health first. However, he noted that he is unbothered by shoppers who choose to forgo the face covering, because they typically distance themselves from others anyway. Omar said the biggest change was simply the way in which people shop. The store often feels more hectic than it typically would, expressing the extra anxiety that accompanies a pandemic. While this was not surprising, I did not witness this sense of chaos during my visit.



As expected, behavioral patterns in grocery stores changed during the pandemic. Customers were wearing masks, and there was a division among those who took safety precautions seriously and those who did not. Those who were not visibly at high-risk did not have the same regard for the health of others. Furthermore, the employees sought to please shoppers rather than enforce regulations.

I would have liked to interview customers, but I did not feel comfortable approaching shoppers considering their varying degrees of compliance with store regulations. Regardless, I did appreciate my conversation with Omar, which helped me understand the perspective of grocery store employees.

Ultimately, I found that human behavior was categorically impacted by COVID-19. One subgroup navigated the store with caution, distancing themselves from others and wearing a proper mask. On the contrary, others were less affected by the pandemic, as they continued their shopping per usual. This could be crucial in the coming months. Although some have taken the necessary precautions to protect their health, lack of adherence to the guidelines could result in more COVID-19 cases and extend the duration of the pandemic.



Foster, G.D., Karpyn, A., Wojtanowski, A.C., Davis, E., Weiss, S., Brensinger, C., Tierney, A.,

Guo, W., Brown, J., Spross, C., Leuchten, D., Burns, P.J., Glanz, K. (2014). Placement

and promotion strategies to increase sales of healthier products in supermarkets in low-income, ethnically diverse neighborhoods: a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 99(6), 1359-1368.


[CDC] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Covid-19 hospitalization and death

by race/minority.


Featured Image: Google Images for free and fair reuse

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