Remember all those images of bare shelves last spring? With coronavirus cases mushrooming in the U.S. this fall, retailers are again reporting that consumers are loading up on cleaning supplies, paper products, canned foods and other items.
So, don’t be surprised if your neighborhood Target or Walmart is out of toilet paper.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said on a recent quarterly earnings call that new regional shortages have everything to do with local COVID cases.
“We’re going to be able to respond in this instance better than we did in the first half of the year, although we’re still — as a total supply chain — stressed in some places,” he said.
Many stores have set limits on purchases to ensure people get their shot at basic necessities. Here are a few tips on how you can get what you need, and at the right price, as stores respond to a new wave of panic buying.
New items running low
Shoppers and retailers report certain things are running low, including liquid hand soap, disinfecting wipes and canning jars, especially the lids. Some products have been difficult to find ever since the initial hoarding last spring.
New shortages had been anticipated as the weather turned colder, because experts said the coronavirus would spike while Americans spent more time indoors. During a panel discussion with doctors from Harvard Medical School in September, White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Americans should prepare to “hunker down to get through this fall and winter.”
More than a third of consumers — or 86.7 million Americans — already have been stockpiling household supplies, according to a November survey from LendingTree.
The top items being hoarded? No surprises, it’s food, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, face masks, water and paper products. Beyond grocery goods, Americans have been stockpiling entertainment products (including books and games), beauty products, office supplies and pet food, the survey showed.
If you're planning to avoid stores and are doing most of your shopping online, install a free browser extension that will automatically find you deals and coupon codes.
How stores have prepared
The level of panic might not be the same this winter as it was last March and April, but even a little hoarding will aggravate the already high consumer demand during the holiday season. But stores have tried to plan ahead.
“Grocery stores and food retailers are stockpiling products to prepare for another widespread outbreak of COVID-19 cases,” said Edward McLaughlin, a professor of food industry management at Cornell University, in September.
Typically, stores make use of demand forecasting, triggering an order to the supplier at the last minute, just before the store stock is depleted, McLaughlin said. But companies were caught off guard when customers began hoarding, and inventory levels were too low to match huge spikes in demand.
“Retailers have learned key lessons from the pandemic,” McLaughlin said. “Shoppers will be loyal even if you don’t have the fancy extras (skinned, boned, lime-marinated chicken thighs) as long as you have the basics (chicken breasts).”
Instead of responding to demand, companies are now sending paper products, pasta, beans and holiday items to stores with no need for an order.
Shop smart this winter
Retailers are putting limits on high-demand items, so you're likely to see fewer people walking away with carts full of toilet paper.
If you do decide to make a few big grocery hauls, be sure to keep an eye out for deals and rewards so you don’t put an oversized dent in your savings during the holidays.
There's one free app you can use to earn free gift cards just by snapping a photo of your receipt.
Another app, and its accompanying browser add-on, will help you instantly compare prices all over the web, if you don't want to deal with the lines at brick-and-mortar stores.
These digital tools should help take the sting out of an extra challenging holiday shopping season.