FLORENCE, S.C. — A local grocery manager said the first few days of the COVID-19 shutdowns had his customers scared to death.

Marty Massey, manager of the Florence Mall Piggly Wiggly, spoke Monday afternoon at a Florence Rotary Club meeting about the effects on his store of the shutdowns that were implemented to prevent COVID-19 patients from overwhelming local hospitals.

"Our business was fantastic," Massey said. "People were scared to death. It was like the world was going to end. It was like we [weren't going to] be resupplied. It was just frantic."

Business at the store, Massey continued, exploded after March 17.

March 17 is the date that South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order closing restaurants in the state for a period of 14 days to slow the spread of COVID-19 to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients in need of care due to the virus.

"My business doubled immediately," Massey said. "Things went crazy."

The additional sales, Massey added, were concentrated in two areas: paper goods and meat.

Keeping a steady supply of paper goods was an immediate challenge. At first, the store implemented quantity limits.

"We would put up signs all over the store, limit two on toilet paper," Massey said. "The trouble was that people would come in and get buggies full. You'd tell them, 'Hey, I'm sorry, two.' We learned pretty quickly that was the wrong thing to do."

Customers would claim to be purchasing two packs for several family members, Massey added.

Massey said he began to turn to other companies to keep products on the shelves.

"C&S is our wholesale supplier. We did everything we could to keep our shelves stocked," Massey said. "We used different companies to supply from. We used Performance Food Group that's right here in Florence. We bought bleach from them. We bought toilet tissue."

At one point, the store even stocked restaurant toilet tissue.

"People were buying it by force because they couldn't find any," Massey added. "We bought paper towels. We bought soap. But we stayed in stock at the Florence Mall Piggly Wiggly."

The store used social media to advertise that it was "the best-stocked store in Florence," Massey added.

Once people came into the store, Massey said, they were going to continue to shop there.

Massey highlighted many of the store's advantages: local ownership, meats cut in the store, its sushi department, its prepared from scratch deli, local produce, its pharmacy, its flower shop and its friendly employees.

The threat of the virus also affected the store's employees, Massey said.

"I lost seven employees who refused to come to work," Massey said. "I probably hired 12 teenagers."

Massey said he particularly enjoyed getting to impart his 46 years of experience with the company to the new employees.

"One of my favorite jobs in my store is hiring new people, young people, never worked before," Massey said. "They don't have a clue what to do. The first thing I tell them is this: Who pays my salary? Your boss? Your owner? No. The customer pays my salary, pays your salary. So, we've hired 12 high school people who are delighted to have a job and be a part of the workforce."

Massey also added that the store paid its employees an extra dollar per hour for around eight weeks during the pandemic.

In response to a question, Massey said two of the store's employees had tested positive for the virus but both were asymptomatic and the store was thoroughly cleaned by an outside company.

The store also added social distancing guides and other regulations required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Also, Massey said the store's online ordering option grew exponentially. The store had 70 such orders in one day. Prior to the panic, the store didn't average 70 orders per month.

Government and Politics Reporter

I cover the city of Florence, the county of Florence, the state legislative delegation of Florence County and surrounding areas, and the federal delegation representing the Pee Dee for the Morning News.

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