Empty Grocery Shelves Due to COVID-19 Precautions

Some boxes that hold canned greens sit empty after customers purchase them to prepare for COVID-19 at 4 p.m. Friday, March 13, 2020, at Walmart on Avenue Q.

Stepping into a grocery store amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, barren shelves have become the norm. But, despite what consumers see, experts say there is no need to panic as the supply chains for food items and household staples remain intact. 

“What you’re seeing in the grocery stores right now is more of just a shock than any sort of failure of the supply chains,” Daniel Taylor, assistant professor of supply chain management, said. “It’s just nobody expected, you know, everyone to suddenly go out and buy three times more of everything, and so things ran short.”

The production side of the industry needs time to catch up to this sudden, unexpected surge in demand, Nancy Sharp, manager of communications and community engagement for the The United Family, said. The United Family operates 95 stores under five retail banners including United Supermarkets, Market Street, United Express, Amigos and Albertsons Market, according to its website. 

The current surge in demand is highly unusual because it extends across the nation, Sharp said. In past crises such as hurricanes, shortages could be met by others stepping in because demand was in only one area, unlike the present situation. 

“Right now, we're seeing internationally, the demand be, we're seeing nationally the demand being high,” Sharp said. “And as everyone is looking for more groceries to stay home, and restaurants are closing. So, it's just taking the production side in the supply chain time to catch up.”

Given a couple of weeks, Taylor said grocery stores should be able to stock most items once again. Most food items and household staples are produced domestically and have supply chains that remain intact. 

Toilet paper, for example, is generally produced in North American plants along with other paper products, he said. Most food items operate similarly. For canned goods, tin, steel and aluminum are imported, but they can also be produced domestically if necessary.

Even imported foods, such as bananas from Costa Rica, still are being shipped, he said.

“Though countries like Costa Rica have closed their borders, freight is still moving,” Taylor said. “They still have to run their economy, and so ships with produce and food and these sort of things are still moving.”

In the event the COVID-19 pandemic continues for a prolonged period of time, the supply chain for food should still not be impacted, he said.

The exception would be if individuals such as farmers and those involved in transportation get sick. But, even then, as individuals get sick, the majority of them will eventually get well after a period of time and rejoin the economic system, he said. 

“So the idea that a huge percentage of our farming population or a huge percentage of our transportation population would all get hit at the same time, that’s just not likely,” Taylor said. 

The shortages consumers are currently experiencing will stop once people are done buying extras of everything, he said. At that point, the back stock will start to fill the shelves.

People should just buy what they need and not try to stockpile, Sharp said. For example, there is no need to purchase months and months of toilet paper. 

If people refrain from unnecessary purchases, that will give production in the supply chain some time to catch up, she said.

“(Consumers) I think, just really take a deep breath and relax and we're going to all get through this together,” she said. “Our grocery stores are not going to close. So, there's not going to be a situation where it's going to be a shuttered store, our stores will be open.”

In a City of News Conference on Thursday, Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope similarly asked residents to reduce their purchasing. 

“We have data around traffic in different kinds of environments and (Lubbock residents are) way up on our visits to the grocery store,” Pope said. “We’re way outside of our norms. Shop normally, please.”

Consumers at the grocery store can purchase a little more than they otherwise might to limit visits and potential exposure to COVID-19, but Taylor said he recommends only keeping 14 to 21 days worth of food. 

That would be enough food in the event that a person tests positive for COVID-19 and has to self-quarantine, he said. 

“It’s nice to know that you have what you need at your home for that time period, but beyond that it’s getting a little ridiculous because there is no evidence of any shortage anywhere other than empty shelves which are, you’ll notice, starting to fill up again.”

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