Stores see return of panic buying as COVID-19 shutdowns loom

The nationwide explosion in coronavirus cases is fueling another wave of hoarding by U.S. consumers, who are again stripping retail shelves bare of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. The tide of infections is prompting a replay of behavior seen in March, when the pandemic was spreading and Americans stocked up in preparation for a long period of being housebound. 

Walmart, the country’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer, is among the chains struggling to keep up with demand for cleaning supplies at some of its more than 4,750 domestic stores, but said it is better equipped to handle the stockpiling than it was earlier this year. Amazon, which has sold out of most disinfectant wipes and paper towels, said it’s working with manufacturers to replenish supplies of basic household items.

As consumers load up, grocery chains including Kroger, Publix and Wegmans are limiting how much customers can pile into their shopping carts. 

“To ensure all customers have access to high-demand products as the country begins to experience an increase in COVID-19 cases, Kroger has proactively and temporarily set purchase limits on certain products to two per customer, including bath tissue, paper towels, disinfecting wipes and hand soap,” a spokesperson for Kroger told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. The limits apply both to in-store and online purchases, added the grocer, which operates nearly 2,800 stores in 35 states.

Also trying to extend its inventory, Wegmans is limiting purchases of products including bath tissue, paper towels, facial tissue and disinfecting wipes to one per customer. The supermarket is capping at two purchases of household cleaners, napkins and peanut butter, according to the regional supermarket chain, which operates 100 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Union boss on unmasked shoppers 06:40

Publix last week began limiting how much paper towels and bath tissue could be purchased because of rising customer demand. “[W]e, like all other retailers, are on allocation from our suppliers,” a spokesperson for the 1,258-store chain told CBS MoneyWatch. “We continue to monitor other categories and adjust as necessary.”

In addition to the limits we have in place, we ask customers to shop only for the items they need. As we have continuously shared, the supply chain is resilient. We need to do our part and allow it an opportunity to rebound.

Still, Geoff Freeman, CEO of the Consumer Brands Association — formerly the Grocery Manufacturers Association — doesn’t expect things to be as bad this time around as lockdowns are regional and supermarkets are better prepared.

“A more informed consumer combined with a more informed manufacturer and a more informed retailer should provide all of us with a greater sense of ease and ensure we can meet this growing demand, ” Freeman told the Associated Press.

That said, the supply problem is exacerbated by worker absences at the plants where the products are produced, with roughly 10% of the workforce out of commission, largely from being in contact with others who had tested positive for COVID-19, Freeman added.

The biggest trouble appears to be paper products, as 21% of shelves that stock paper towels and toilet paper are empty, 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Moneywatch – CBSNews.com

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