Empathy and Caring: They're Everywhere

In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers are stepping up to the plate
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Posted April 16, 2020

On any other mid-week morning in April, Madison Avenue is a fast-moving lifeline beating, pushing and pulsating northward through the heart of New York City. The avenue is typically a patchwork of double-parked delivery trucks engulfed in a tangled network of yellow taxis sounding their horns as they deftly maneuver around slow-moving vehicles.

There are no blaring horns these mornings, only the incessant and unnerving shrieks of sirens as ambulances rush through the empty city streets. Mass transit is still running, as city buses shepherd essential workers to the places they need to be, whether it’s the hospital, the pharmacy, the police or fire station or the grocery store.

Every evening at 7 p.m., the eerie stillness is broken as the hospital workers – doctors, nurses, technicians and orderlies – change shifts. Windows open in the surrounding apartment buildings, and people lean out to clap and cheer while the few cars on the street sound their horns in recognition of the incredible work done by these heroes of the day.

Hard times bring out the best and the worst in people. Price gauging and hoarding are two unfortunate responses that happen more often than we would have hoped. But for the most part, there is a genuine feeling of compassion, empathy and caring that is being displayed from all quarters. There has been a definite swelling of civic responsibility and unity aimed at supporting and coming to the aid of the community in a moment of crisis.

Retailers from every sector are contributing to the effort to protect the community and help shoppers and employees alike as they navigate through these challenging times. The big three pharmacies, Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid, have waived delivery fees on prescriptions so their customers would not have to visit stores for prescription refills and new medications, while Walmart is giving cash bonuses to hourly workers totaling $550 million.

Stores large and small, from giants like Costco to Walls, a neighborhood bakery in Hewlett, N.Y., have all stepped up to the plate to help those most vulnerable in this time of great need. Many retailers have partnered with Long Island-based Rock and Wrap it Up!, an award winning anti-poverty think-tank started by Brooklyn-born scientist, Syd Mandelbaum. With an impressive resume, Mandelbaum has devoted his career toward the better good, including an 18-year stint as the Human Rights Commissioner in Nassau County, with the ultimate goal of reducing prejudice and bigotry. Moreover, as a scientist he conducted in-depth research in DNA, genetics and cancer for medical think-tanks across the county. Always interested in reducing the ravages of hunger, he introduced and helped pass the Federal Food Donation Act of 2008, signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Mandelbaum started Rock and Wrap it Up! in 1991 as a 501(c)(3) organization after seeing tremendous amounts of food being thrown away at a rock concert after party. This sparked the idea to collect leftover food from sports and entertainment venues. The scientist and the humanitarian in him immediately recognized the incremental possibilities to help stave off hunger in the United States.

With the current crises that we are facing, Mandelbaum geared up to focus a large part of his efforts into feeding those who have lost jobs, are afraid to go food shopping because they are in a vulnerable demographic, or whose previous struggles have been drastically magnified by the effects of COVID-19.

One of the organization’s biggest donors has been the Costco in Lawrence, New York. “They have a great set-up,” said Mandelbaum. “We have pick-ups seven days a week with local faith-based organizations doing their part to help with the collections. Synagogues pick-up on Fridays and churches on Saturdays.”

The retailer donates everything from laundry detergent and water to food and baby items. Another local favorite of Mandelbaum’s, who is forever grateful for their contribution, is Wall’s Bakery of Hewlett, a decade’s long local legend. “They understand empathy and connecting and contributing to the community,” said Mandelbaum. “They donate food to Rock and Wrap it Up! six days a week, contributing all of the baked goods that they don’t sell.”

On a larger scale, Madison Square Garden in New York has made a tremendous contribution. With the outbreak of the virus, MSG cancelled all Knicks basketball games, Rangers hockey games and a Billy Joel concert in January. Garden officials, who already purchased food for the events, couldn't just throw it away. They called Mandelbaum and donated 25,000 pounds of food.  Two agencies then rented trucks to pick up the contribution. Mandelbaum developed a network of agencies and social workers who identify at-risk segments of the population in need of help. After the recovery, the agencies distribute the food. Each agency is vetted for health certificates and safe food-handling course completion.

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo was asked at a news conference, “How will we get back to where we were?” His response was, “We don't want to go back; we want to go forward.”

And while this April has been dismal at best, it’s with the love, empathy and generosity of business and retail organizations across the country, in addition to the selfless healthcare providers, essential workers and the amazing efforts of people like Mandelbaum (who can be seen on most mornings donning a mask and loading his SUV with donations), that a new spring will arrive.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.