Grocery stores prepare for shoppers to stockpile ahead of another coronavirus wave

Dawson White
·4 min read

Many of us won’t soon forget what we saw in grocery stores at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — aisles and aisles of bare shelves, check-out lines stretching through stores and shopping carts filled to the brim.

From toilet paper to yeast to cleaning supplies, it seemed stores couldn’t keep essentials on the shelf as shoppers scurried to stock up ahead of lockdowns.

“Pandemic buying” ultimately calmed down, but as COVID-19 cases climb ahead of the winter months — the U.S. saw record daily case counts on Friday and Saturday — grocers say they’re planning for customers to start stockpiling again.

“(Shoppers) say that they won’t get caught without what they need again,” Chris Mentzer, the director of operations for Rastelli Market Fresh in New Jersey, told Today. “To compound the shortages, the customers that weren’t buying before are now buying extra, so the shortages are starting to impact stock levels.”

Leslyn Hall of Vermont said she and her husband are planning a big trip to the grocery store this month in preparation for a surge in COVID-19 cases — as well as the outcome of the general election on Nov. 3, USA Today reported.

“We talked about doing a big shop like we’re going into quarantine,” she told the outlet, adding that she plans to buy enough milk, beans and rice to last her family several weeks.

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Which items may be difficult to find

Experts say many items are expected to be tough to find through the winter.

Clorox wipes, for instance, are highly sought after but still notoriously difficult to find on shelves, The New York Times reported. So difficult, it seems, that some shoppers show up at stores as soon as the wipes are delivered and snatch up an entire shipment’s worth in mere minutes, according to the newspaper.

“During our normal course of business, we would have up to two months of supply, and retailers, between what they had on the shelf and their own inventory, had a month of supply. All of that inventory in the system was gone in one to two weeks,” Andy Mowery, chief supply officer for Clorox, told the Times.

The company cut the number of products it produces to focus on the wipes and other high-demand items, but Clorox said it still expects to be working to meet demand well into 2021, according to the newspaper.

Grocery store worker Christopher Plasse said they’re having trouble keeping light bulbs in stock at Geissler’s supermarket in Agawam, Massachusetts, WWLP reported.

Shoppers are also stocking up on meat with plans to freeze it for use during the winter, Mentzer told Today. Frozen meals and frozen pizzas are also flying off shelves, something Mentzer attributes to some schools and colleges closing for the winter.

Pasta, baking supplies and other dry goods are also in high demand, according to the outlet.

Paper towels have been especially hard to come by at Costco and Amazon, CNN reported.

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How retailers are preparing

Some retailers, however, say they’re prepared for what may lie ahead.

Target said it’s sending more inventory to its stores than ever before ahead of the holiday season, the Augusta Chronicle reported.

Kroger told the newspaper its supply chain is strong.

“The supplies of household staples that were in short supply at the onset of the pandemic such as toilet paper, bleach, hand sanitizer and hand wipes have improved,” Felix Turner, corporate affairs manager for Kroger, told the Chronicle. “Items in high demand that are selling out quickly include paper towels, certain surface cleaners and surface cleaning wipes.”

Walmart said it’s aware of what shoppers are after and that it’s in close communication with suppliers across the world to “prepare for any shortfalls,” according to the Chronicle.

Shoppers turning to online options

When local stores sold out of essentials, many shoppers turned to online retailers to find what they needed.

Many are still shopping online. Now, about 17.2% of grocery shopping is done online, Bill Parsons, group president of data and analytics at Evestnet, told USA Today. That’s a 2% increase from the beginning of September.

Instacart said that it’s seen an increase in searches for staples that have been historically hard to find during the pandemic, according to the outlet. Searches for “toilet paper” spiked 14% in the four weeks leading up to Oct. 12.

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Retailers learned from the spring

If a major surge in stockpiling does come to pass, experts say retailers are better equipped to handle it.

For one, they’re more likely to place purchase limits on highly sought-after items earlier in the process, Moneywise reported.

They’ve also learned which items to prioritize keeping in stock.

“Retailers have learned key lessons from the pandemic,” Edward McLaughlin, a professor of food industry management at Cornell University, told the outlet. “Shoppers will be loyal even if you don’t have the fancy extras (skinned, boned, lime-marinated chicken thighs) as long as you have the basics (chicken breasts).”