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Is panic buying returning in San Diego amid rising COVID rates?

Shelves of paper towels at the Albertsons store in downtown San Diego.
A recently imposed purchase limit on toilet paper and paper towels has helped keep shelves filled at the Albertsons store in downtown San Diego.
(Lori Weisberg/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As grocers see shoppers raid shelves for toilet paper and wipes, they are reinstating limits on purchases to slow hoarding

Hoping to head off a repeat of consumer hoarding amid the widening coronavirus pandemic, grocers have reinstated limits on purchases like toilet paper and hand soap, a move that so far seems to be working.

Over the weekend, reports of empty shelves in San Diego County stores surfaced, reminiscent of the much more widespread shortages seen earlier this year, as consumers, frightened by the sharp increase in coronavirus cases, started buying up staples like toilet paper and cleaning products in large quantities.

Unlike the last go-around, though, major chains like Kroger and Albertsons were quick to act, quickly reinstating restrictions on how many popular products shoppers could buy. As of Monday, a spot check of several stores revealed relatively full shelves, with such previously difficult to find products like disinfectant wipes readily available.

“There isn’t necessarily a supply issue but it’s more like now there’s panic buying, and that’s what we’re seeing,” said Melissa Hill, a spokeswoman for Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions markets. “So we did implement on Friday limits on select items like toilet paper, paper towels, hand and dish soap, and rubbing alcohol — a limit of two or four per customer so we could keep the shelves stocked and not have them wiped out like we saw in March.”

The Kroger Co. chain, which owns Ralphs, had acted even earlier, imposing limits on paper goods, hand soap and sanitary wipes, a move that Hill suspects might have accelerated more buying in all grocery stores.

“Given what we saw in the past, we thought we needed to put something in place to protect supplies going forward,” said Ralphs spokesman John Votava.

“With Thanksgiving coming up and people shopping for a lot of the same items, it’s wise to be proactive, to start doing your shopping now,” Votava said. “And if we are to be socially distant, the last place we want to be in is in long lines in a grocery store. You can also use our website or app and plan in advance.”

On Monday morning at the Ralph’s off East Palomar Street in Chula Vista, shoppers were largely going about shopping as normal without an eye toward a COVID-19 surge. But, in some cases, it was because they were already prepared.

Marianne Fletcher, 81, of Chula Vista, was there buying several cases of soda and other beverages. However, that was because they were on sale. Fletcher said she had gone out last week to get extra food items and had purchased a 30-roll toilet paper pack from Costco in October.

“I am fully stocked,” she said.

Fletcher said she is a lung cancer survivor so she and her husband try to stay away from large crowds, which is why she was at the Ralphs instead of a nearby Costco. She said they had relied on her daughter to shop for them at the start of the pandemic, but she moved away so they have been doing it themselves.

Last week, as she saw COVID cases rising in San Diego County and new business restrictions were announced, Fletcher said she went to Ralphs to stock up on soups, meat, and other goods.

“I said, ‘It’s getting too iffy around here’,” she added.

The San Diego Union-Tribune interviewed nearly a dozen people in the Ralphs parking lot who said they had either stocked up long ago or didn’t see the need to rush out and buy toilet paper or other goods.

Inside the store, a sign alerted shoppers that toilet paper and paper towels were limited to two packages per household. However, the shelves were almost fully stocked and very different from the early days of the pandemic when they had been emptied.

The same was true at the Albertsons and Ralphs supermarkets in downtown San Diego, where supplies of paper goods and cleaning supplies were abundant.

It was a similar scene at the Asian-themed 99 Ranch Market in the Canyon Plaza Shopping Center. The grocery store did not have any limit on toilet paper and, similar to Ralphs, items that were popular at the start of the pandemic, like Spam, were fully stocked. Shoppers there were buying even less than the patrons at the nearby Ralphs.

Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain practice at Syracuse University, observed that there is a clear correlation between rising COVID-19 rates and the purchase of such things as toilet paper and disinfectants.

But periodic shortages of certain items are not driven by panic buying alone, he added. For months, manufacturers have struggled to produce enough high-demand cleaning products and have even added more equipment, recognizing that once the pandemic eases, they may no longer have a need for what they have invested in.

“With COVID we figured in the beginning that it would be a seasonal thing and would then be over but unfortunately it’s not and it’s crisscrossing around the United States,” said Penfield, who also serves as director of the executive education program at the Whitman School of Management. “What concerns me the most is this prolonged period and how it affects supply chains. We’ve never seen anything like this where a sickness lasts so long. So it’s stressing out all the supply chains.”


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