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Be ready for new panic buying and shortages as COVID cases surge

Ethan Rotberg
·3 min read
Be ready for new panic buying and shortages as COVID cases surge
Be ready for new panic buying and shortages as COVID cases surge

As the U.S. posts startling new records for COVID-19 cases and as new lockdowns start to spread, retailers report that consumers are again loading up on cleaning supplies, paper products, canned foods and other items.

Yes, it means another run on toilet paper.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said recently that keeping the shelves stocked will be "choppy for months to come." Stores are putting fresh limits on some purchases, and Amazon is cracking down on its merchants who appear to be price gouging.

Here are some tips on how you can get what you need as stores respond to a new wave of panic buying.

New items running low

lineup of shoppers at supermarket with grocery carts

Shoppers and retailers report certain things are running low, including liquid hand soap, disinfecting wipes and canning jars (especially lids). Some products have been difficult to find ever since the first wave of hoarding during the spring.

New shortages had been anticipated as the weather turned colder, because experts said the coronavirus would spike as 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.”

Beyond grocery goods, merchants are having trouble keeping these items in stock:

  • Exercise equipment: When gyms closed, it wasn’t easy to pick up items like free weights — and that was when pleasant temperatures allowed people to get outside.

  • Outdoor gear: Speaking of getting outside, expect a run on gloves, hats and any items that allow people to exercise outdoors.

  • Home appliances: It’s a perfect storm: an increase in home reno projects, lack of supply from store closures, COVID-19 protocols at manufacturing facilities and the usual holiday shopping could combine to create shortages on appliances big and small.

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

A view of empty shelves at a department store during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
Orlowski Designs LLC / Shutterstock

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,” added McLaughlin. “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.

Save on shopping this winter

Happy friends shopping. Two beautiful young women enjoying shopping in the city.
adriaticfoto / Shutterstock

Retailers will likely put a limit on high-demand items early, so you may see fewer people walk away with carts full of toilet paper.

That said, it could be prudent to stock up on some specialty items, as stores focus on keeping an ample supply of staples.

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.

A free app will let you earn rewards just by snapping a photo of your receipt.

Points will automatically be added to your account, and when you’ve collected enough points, you can exchange them for gift cards from your favorite stores and brands.

That should take the sting out of what will be an extra challenging holiday shopping season.