Remember when shoppers depleted store shelves as they scrambled to buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other essentials during the early days of COVID-19?
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. “We’ve been doing store checks, and one wholesaler put out five pallets of Bounty paper towels. Within five minutes they were completely sold out.”
With COVID-19 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 have bemoaned 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 moving back to 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.”
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. “It’s been crazy,” he said.
Frank Rodriguez owns a grocery delivery business called Speedy Shopper and is seeing supplies shrink first-hand.
“Paper plates cups, bowls and paper towels are flying off the shelves,” the 28-year-old 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, which is a trading app,” he said.
Supply chain sluggish
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. And 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 its 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 Brothers 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, etc. 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.”
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 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 are 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 am,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.