Panic-buying is taking hold of shoppers across the country as the coronavirus spreads. Already, toilet paper and hand sanitizer have become precious commodities – and they’re flying off store shelves as fast as they can be stocked.
So how are grocery stores maintaining their supplies? And will their supply chains hold up under the strain of the current crisis?
John Mourikes, the co-owner of Foodsmart, a grocery store in Logan Square, said that a huge increase in demand did initially create problems.
“We’re beginning to catch up as there is less panic-buying now,” he said.
Beyond toilet paper and hand sanitizer, he said that the fastest sellers right now are staples like rice, flour and beans.
“People always wanted to buy these things but now they are buying three times as much as normal,” he said. “That’s been the biggest out-of-stock problem.”
So far, Mourikes said that his supply chain is holding up and he’s not paying his suppliers more for those goods.
Daniel Stanton, author of the book “Supply Chain Management for Dummies,” said that although the scale of this crisis is unprecedented, grocery store supply chains are robust because they’re used to dealing with periodic regional crises due to things like extreme weather events.
But Stanton emphasized that panic-buying is creating problems even though there is generally enough for everybody when people don’t hoard.
“Manufacturers simply can’t ramp up supply fast enough to meet demand all the time people continue to panic-buy,” said Stanton.
Longer term, Stanton worries that supply chains could get disrupted by lockdown measures. He noted that a decision by Pennsylvania to close all rest stops impacted truck drivers delivering supplies across the country. Port shutdowns can also create issues because of what Stanton calls the “bullwhip effect” — meaning that problems are magnified back through the supply chain.
Stanton is also concerned that border closures could impact future food production if migrant workers are not available to take care of and harvest crops.
“We could be in a situation where we can’t plant, grow and harvest food,” said Stanton.
At Mariano’s, spokeswoman Amanda Puck said their supermarkets are not only maintaining supplies but looking to hire 1,000 new employees.
“We are holding up. We do have plenty of food and we are working very closely with local vendors and they have stepped up. It is getting better every day,” said Puck.
“We do ask that there is no hoarding” said Puck. “We all have to realize we are all in this together.”
Mariano’s now has special shopping hours for the elderly and medically vulnerable. Customers may also use a pick-up service so they can order online and pick-up groceries without having to go into a store.
Puck said that although staff have been anxious, they are keen to do what they can to help everyone through this crisis.
“To be honest, our staff is very proud right now because they do feel like they are doing their part to help in this crisis,” said Puck, who has also noticed how appreciative customers have been.
Amid the crisis, stores are also doing everything they can to protect their employees and customers, with additional cleaning throughout stores. They are also maintaining social distancing and providing what protective wear they can to staff.
“We are a critical cog in the wheel,” said Mourikes, whose wife and daughters have sewn face masks for all of Foodsmart’s employees.
“People have to have food so we have to stay open,” he said.