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March 19, 2020 1:45 PM, EDT

Surge in Shopping Puts Pressure on Labor, Supply Chain for Grocers

Patrons in the produce section of a Giant Food Stores in Bethlehem Township, Pa., on March 18.Patrons in the produce section of a Giant Food Stores in Bethlehem Township, Pa., on March 18. (Pamela Sroka-Holzmann/Lehigh Valley Live)

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SUNBURY, Pa. — Consumer demand for food and household goods has surged with the continued spread of the novel coronavirus.

The rush overwhelmed grocery stores across the board, spurring companies to adjust hours, limit purchase quantities, seek new hires immediately and ask for customers to be patient.

“Demand on the food system has literally increased over 300% overnight,” said Dean Walker, president of Boyer’s Food Market, in a popular Facebook post and in an interview with The Daily Item.

“What customers need to understand is by stopping the overwhelming tendency to overbuy, you will help this entire situation. Buy what you need only. There is no need to panic,” Walker said.

Shoppers crowded supermarket aisles last week to snatch up goods, whether their needs were immediate or part of long-term planning. The rush intensified as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration ordered public schools closed temporarily and urged nonessential businesses to do the same.

Grocery stores count among the essential businesses cited by Wolf that aren’t restricted by the governor’s mitigation plan.

“Due to overwhelming demand, we are currently experiencing shortages and out of stock on many household staples, including disinfecting and cleaning products,” said Ashley Flowers, public relations manager of Giant Food Stores.

“We’re in close contact with our vendors, and as key staples and categories return to our shelves, we kindly ask that all customers limit their purchases to what they need right now,” Flowers said.

Some stores are modifying hours to give employees rest and allow stores to be thoroughly cleaned before reopening. In addition, some are limiting customer purchases of toilet paper, disinfectants, milk and other goods.

Dennis Curtin, public relations director for Weis Markets, said stores are receiving larger and more frequent shipments.

Demands on workers, products

Product outages varied by grocery chain, location and time of day: canned beans and frozen vegetables, flour and soup, disinfectants and hand sanitizer and, yes, toilet paper.

Geographics and timing of the coronavirus are influencing products in demand, according to Doug Baker, a vice president with food industry trade association FMI. Places with early-onset may see demand spike for cleaning supplies and sanitizers, he wrote on FMI.org. A “response mode” may kick in for communities with multiple cases discovered as consumers make purchases for self-quarantining and comfort.

“This means we’re seeing spikes and plateaus in certain product purchases across the country. We’ll continue to witness this as the coronavirus plays out in the U.S.,” Baker said.

The demand at supermarkets is so intense that Weis, Giant and Boyer’s put out a call for help.

“We’re hiring across our brands,” Flowers said of the Giant and Martin’s grocery companies. “The hiring is part of our efforts to continue meeting the needs of our customers and community at this time as well as provide those who may be looking for work an opportunity to do so.”

“We’re looking for additional selectors in our distribution center and our stores are recruiting and hiring on a regular basis,” Curtin said of Weis.

Walker said supermarkets and suppliers are working to level the supply chain. There’s a problem. At the current level of demand, Walker said there aren’t enough workers to pick products from warehouses or haul deliveries to stores.

Walker emphasized that with dine-in restaurant options closed by the governor, grocery stores likely will be relied on to fill the gaps. He estimated restaurants account for 25% to 30% of people’s diets. Eat-in establishments are permitted to sell carry-out and delivery items.

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