When Deirdre clocked in for his quarter to one The WinCo Foods supermarket in Seattle at 4 a.m. Monday, the store shelves were stocked with paper towels and toilet paper. Based on customer buying habits over the past few months, this should have been more than enough to meet demand.
But within hours, Deirdre – who, like other grocery store workers in this story, asked that his last name not be released to speak candidly about his workplace – and his team realized that it wasn’t. wasn’t just another Monday.
The toilet paper was moving so fast that at 1 p.m. Deirdre and his colleagues decided to implement limits on the number of items each customer could purchase. And just an hour later, at the end of her shift, she remembers, “We were already where you could see the back walls.
“They’re going really fast now,” she told the Daily Beast.
It wasn’t an isolated race on the shelves. As COVID-19 cases continue to climb across the country and some states – like Washington – begin to step up lockdown measures after months of easing restrictions, America is once again witnessing a wave of panicked shoppers stocking the most primary consumer goods. Local reports, social media accounts and interviews point to empty shelves in supermarkets on the West Coast, as well as in major cities in the Northeast, Southwest, Great Lakes region, Texas and beyond.
Supply chain experts and grocery workers don’t believe the next wave of shortages will be as severe or lasting as the one that hit America alongside the initial spread of the pandemic last spring. “People have already amassed a lot of this stuff in their basements,” said Subodha Kumar, Supply Chain Specialist at Temple University.
But some consumers have been traumatized by the latest wave of consumer goods – and are determined not to be left behind as deaths and cases soar.
“I noticed that my family had increased their inventory slightly,” said Bennett, an employee of a grocery store in Minnesota – where the cases are exploding – with particular reference to toilet paper. “People now store not because they are afraid to be stuck at home, but because they’ve seen everyone buy it and they’re afraid they won’t be able to get it later. “
When the pandemic first struck, no one knew what to expect. Many feared that manufacturers, stores and transportation companies would be shut down completely, or that they would find themselves completely confined to their homes for weeks or months. So they bought whatever they thought could help them overcome any unpredictable and chaotic eventualities that came to their mind.
“In March, what people were sourcing was a bit hit and miss,” Deirdre said. “They would just say, ‘OK, I’m going to have this, because that’s what they have in stock.'”
Globally, for most goods, demand has never exceeded supply. But stores often had no way of predicting how much they would need of a given thing until they already had a shortage issue, sometimes struggling. to find new suppliers if the old ones were blocked. Months of enduringly or unpredictably bare shelves fueled people’s fears, and panic buying increased.
“It took two, three months, depending on the products and the players involved, for the supply chain to correct itself,” said Pedro Reyes, a grocery supply chain expert at the Baylor University.
Some products, such as disinfectant wipes, are never fully recovered; Clorox, for example, told customers to expect shortages until 2021. Others did not return until stores began to supplement or replace well-known brands, periodically stretched, with lesser-known brands. from afar.
But customers adjusted to these realities and their anxiety subsided. For the most part, said Dierdre, his store “has returned to our normal stocks, with only a few shortages, for at least two months.”
Until the last days, that is to say. And a bathroom necessity has been at the center of reversing that sense of stability in supermarkets that has been going on for months.
“Toilet paper is the target of panic buying” especially when lockdown measures are announced, argued Steven Taylor, an expert in pandemic psychology at the University of British Columbia, because now “many consumers expect others to panic to buy it ”.
Still, many on the frontlines seem to feel like this consumer goods race is somehow more genteel than those in the first wave of COVID-19. “In March, it was almost like a stampede was about to happen anytime,” Deidre said. In November, many of her customers began to self-control the number of toilet paper packages they bought before WinCo even introduced purchase quantity restrictions, she added.
The mitigated initial impact of these panic buying may reflect people feeling less uncertain of what the lockdown measures will mean for our lives this time around. It may also reflect the fact that many Americans who wish to stockpile merchandise have moved away from in-store shopping to bulk ordering online, noted Erika Marsillac, a supply chain expert at Old Dominion University.
Equally important: Suppliers and stockers expected a second wave of the virus and increased demand for key items like toilet paper, at some point. They just didn’t know when it hit, or how bad.
“I had circled in early October on my calendar”, Reyes says The Daily Beast. “I missed it by a few weeks.”
The uncertainty about the timing made it difficult for them to keep the shelves full to begin with. But experts broadly agree that the lessons that producers, shippers and stores learned in the first wave of the pandemic will help them close supply gaps and keep shelves reassuringly filled in days or weeks. . Most large supermarkets have in fact started to put limits on the number of cleaning and paper products customers can buy, not because they run out of supplies, they say, but to avoid stockouts. and shortages.
Limiting purchases could of course work against you if it only customers are thinking more about the risk of shortages in the future as they see hospitals swarmed and cases soar. Official messages urging people not to panic with their purchases in response to the new restrictions could also go wrong. And, of course, a whole new curve ball could strike a nation desperate for relief, throwing shoppers and stores completely out of control again.
But Deirdre, for his part, thinks that “in a day or two people will come to the stores and say, ‘Oh, they still have a lot of products – they are not going to run out'” for a long time, as we expected. . In other words, cooler heads will prevail quickly.
Hope she is right about it. Because, like Thomas, another Minnesota grocer, told the Daily Beast, “Funny as it may be, no one wants to see customers fighting over toilet paper again.”
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