Hoarders gut stores as panic over pandemic drives shoppers

Panic shopping: Paper, cleaning items in short supply again as coronavirus cases spike

By Kevin Smith | SCNG

Remember when shoppers depleted store shelves as they scrambled to buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other essentials during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic?

Well, hold onto your seats because it’s happening again and one industry expert says it’s going to be worse this time around.

“We’re headed for a product shortage and consumer panic of unprecedented proportions,” said Burt P. Flickinger III with the retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group.

With coronavirus cases spiking, Gov. Gavin Newsom moved much of California back to the state’s restrictive purple tier this week, and the fear of another lockdown has fueled panic buying all over again. Shoppers across Southern California took to social media bemoaning a lack of toilet paper and cleaning supplies at Costco stores, Walmart and local supermarkets.

At a Costco in Cypress, Sadie Lara was shopping with her family Tuesday afternoon for water and other “survival stuff.” She wasn’t happy that Orange County was back in purple status and she wanted to make sure to stock up on paper products and dry goods, as well as alcohol — “both types.”

But if she couldn’t find the antiseptic kind, then vodka would do the trick too, she said.

“It works as a disinfectant,” she said.

Some of those paper products — toilet paper and paper towels — flew out the door in the first hour of the day, said one supervisor who noted increased traffic since the weekend. Another manager said the warehouse store has seen an uptick in customers since shortly before the election on Nov. 3.

Shoppers buy water and toilet paper at Costco in Fullerton on Tuesday. The retailer is rationing the amount of staples people can buy.  JEFF GRITCHEN — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“It’s been crazy,” he said.

Frank Rodriguez owns a grocery delivery business called Speedy Shopper and is seeing supplies shrink firsthand.

“Paper plates cups, bowls and paper towels are flying off the shelves,” the 28-yearold Orange resident said. “And cleaners have always been hard to find; they’ve never come back in stock.”

Some self-styled entrepreneurs are already making money off of the situation by price gouging, according to Rodriguez.

“People will get 10 packs of toilet paper and sell them at a higher price on OfferUp. com,” he said.

The biggest supply issue nationwide seems to be paper products: 21% of shelves that stock paper towels and toilet paper are empty, the highest level in at least a month, according to market research company IRI. Cleaning supplies have remained level at 16%. Before the pandemic, 5% to 7% of consumer goods were typically out of stock, IRI said.

Walmart said Tuesday it’s having trouble keeping up with demand for cleaning supplies in some stores. Supermarket chains are limiting how much toilet paper and paper towels shoppers can buy after demand spiked recently. Amazon is sold out of most disinfectant wipes and paper towels.

Walmart said while supplies are stressed in some areas, it thinks it will be able to handle any stockpiling now than earlier this year. Amazon said it’s working with manufacturers to get items such as disinfecting wipes, paper towels and hand sanitizer in stock.

Shoppers, already in the stores preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday, are stocking up.

“My wife told me she got the last large package of toilet paper yesterday while shopping at Stater Bros. in Long Beach,” Charlie Smith wrote in a Facebook group that promotes safe retail and dining places amid the pandemic. “She went there to pick up a few items and ended up spending about $200 when she saw the store was crowded at 2 in the afternoon on a Monday.”

Malissa Hernandez relayed a similar experience.  “Costco Fullerton was INSANE this morning,” Hernandez said Tuesday. “There was a line in front of the store to get paper goods, water, milk. The line went the entire length of the store and wrapped around a bit.”

Preparing for the worst

Flickinger attributes the supply problem to a number of factors.

“Big brand suppliers have been lining their pockets with record-breaking levels of profit while failing to stockpile quantities of raw materials like boxes, bottles and containers,” he said. “We’re seeing unprecedented out-of-stock levels for paper towels, bathroom tissue, disinfectant wipes, Ziploc bags and liquid soap, as well as peanut butter and tuna.”

Flickinger said his firm has been doing store checks to monitor supply and demand.

“One wholesaler put out five pallets of Bounty paper towels. Within five minutes they were completely sold out.”

Over the past decade, Clorox, Kimberly-Clark, Colgate and other brand suppliers closed many of their manufacturing operations near major cities like Los Angeles and New York City and moved them “to the middle of nowhere” where labor is cheaper, Flickinger said. That has slowed the supply as a result.

“They were following what the studies said, but that’s some of the worst consulting assumptions and assessments I’ve seen in decades,” he said.

Supplies running low

A manager at Vons supermarket in Westminster said the store had a run on paper towels over the weekend. It prompted the market to begin limiting some products to two items per shopper.

Shopper Leona Harris said it’s happening in La Habra, too.

“The La Habra Sam’s Club had no toilet paper yesterday at 11 a.m.,” she said.

All that’s left of a shipment of paper towels and toilet paper is the bright blue pallets that held thousands of rolls at Costco in Tustin on Wednesday. Some shoppers expressed surprise that shortages were occurring again. A worker explained that the store receives daily shipments, but supplies were gone by 11a.m.  MINDY SCHAUER — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A customer, with paper products atop her cart, is assisted with her purchases by a Costco employee in Rancho Cucamonga on Wednesday. A market research firm says 21% of store shelves holding paper towels and toilet paper are empty.  WILL LESTER STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A sign over an empty display of paper towels limits the amount Costco customers in Tustin can purchase.  MINDY SCHAUER STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Posted On: 11/19/2020 9:54:02 AM
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