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Brands Including Costco, Starbucks, Postmates Respond To Coronavirus

Some major brands are altering the way they interact with consumers in reaction to the escalating fear surrounding the spread of the coronavirus.

Costco told analysts last Thursday that concerns over the outbreak have prompted customers to stock up on essentials, including disinfectants, forcing the warehouse operator to replenish certain items frequently. 

However, on Friday, the retailer stopped offering food sampling at its stores. The multiple snack stations throughout the stores have been a mainstay, and customers took to social media over the weekend to lament their disappearance as well as post videos of panic buying, including huge lines of shoppers with grocery carts waiting to enter the stores.

Costco’s decision followed Trader Joe’s to alter the way employees distribute free samples. The retailer is now plating to customers individually instead of keeping pre-plated samples on a platter for customers to grab. 

Starbucks has temporarily ended the use of reusable cups at its locations around the world. Previously, customers could provide their own mug or travel tumbler for beverages. The company will continue to honor its 10-cent discount for anyone who brings in a personal cup or tumbler for coffee, even though customers can't use them, said Rossann Williams, Starbucks' executive vice president and president of U.S. company-operated business and Canada in a post on the company’s website.

Delivery service app Postmates sent out an email to customers on Friday giving them the option to receive their items with no contact if they wished. Users concerned about exposure from workers bringing them food and other items can elect that choice under delivery options. Instacart is also offering no-contact deliveries as an option. 

Cruise business has taken a downfall after the coronavirus contaminated several recent voyages resulting in dozens of sick passengers. To ease fears, Norwegian Cruise Lines has altered its cancellation policy. Beginning March 10, passengers who have a cruise booked through Sept. 30 may cancel up to 48 hours prior to embarkation and receive a full refund in the form of a 100% future cruise credit to be used for sailings that embark through Dec. 31, 2022.

Norwegian Cruise Line President and CEO Harry Sommer issued a statement Saturday outlining steps the company has taken to ensure passenger safety. To show that he “walks the talk,” Sommer added that he is traveling with family and friends to Europe in late May aboard an NCL ship. 

Many airlines also have altered their policies, allowing customers to alter travel plans without incurring change fees. Delta, American, United and JetBlue are among those waiving change fees for tickets purchased between March 1-31. 

Alaska Airlines is waiving change fees tickets purchased between Feb, 27 and March 31. The airline also assured customers in a blog post that although coronavirus is not thought to be airborne, “our planes are equipped with systems that contain two HEPA, or High Efficiency Particulate Air filters. They’re the same kind of filters found in hospital operating rooms.”

The Consumer Brands Association is continually updating a help page for brands looking for information on best practices and other information related to the virus. The group also has released a survey of how consumers are reacting to the virus. Almost half of the 604 surveyed said they had changed or were considering changing their grocery buying habits as a result of coronavirus concerns, choosing to buy online or use delivery or pick-up services so they can mitigate their exposure to crowded spaces.

Per Nielsen, for the week ending Feb. 20, hand sanitizer sales were up 313.4%, while household maintenance mask sales soared 475%. Aerosol disinfectants were up 99.6% while sales of thermometers were up 80.4%.

One product in increasingly short supply is hand sanitizer, which has prompted consumers to consider alternatives, like vodka. Tito’s is one brand that has been trying to shut down the suggestion, per Eater.com, repeatedly tweeting in response: “Per the [Centers for Disease Control], hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol by volume,” per the brand. “Tito's Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC.”

In a proactive move, Petco’s CEO Ron Coughlin issued a statement with information from a veterinarian on the Petco Pet Wellness Council. 

According to the CDC, there is currently no known reason to believe that any animals, including pets in the United States, can spread the coronavirus. The company said it is disheartened to learn “that some pet owners in areas where the virus is prevalent have made troubling decisions about abandoning their pets out of misinformation about how the coronavirus spreads.”

—with Steve Ellwanger

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