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Grocery stores prepare for a 2nd wave of pandemic panic shopping

When the coronavirus pandemic first struck, grocery retailers across the nation were scrambling to restock shelves as consumers panic-shopped for canned goods, flour, yeast and most curiously, toilet paper. Now, with a second wave of COVID-19 looming and fear over potential unrest around the presidential election, consumers are aggressively stocking up on various foods. And grocers are struggling to keep up with the demand.

“As of now what we are seeing is the start of the second wave of panic,” said Chris Mentzer, the director of operations for Rastelli Market Fresh in New Jersey. “Our customers keep telling me how they are looking for any type of freezer to purchase so they can start stocking up their homes now. Their main concern is meat.” He explained that customers are mainly looking to buy and freeze beef and poultry — ground beef, steaks, roasts and all varieties of chicken.

“They’re also starting to buy a lot of frozen meals and frozen pizzas,” said Mentzer. “We are seeing anything that can be microwaved quickly or easily made in the oven for kids, fly off the shelves, as people are preparing for schools and colleges to be closed this winter — along with a run on dried goods and paper goods, as well.”

Stew Leonard Jr., the president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s grocery chain in the Tri-State area, is seeing a spike in demand for the same type of items that Mentzer noted, and an uptick in how much shoppers are spending per visit.

“Though our customer count has decreased (since the pandemic) — meaning people are making fewer trips — the average sale has increased by about 25%,” Leonard told TODAY. “We are finding difficulty getting name brands like Clorox, Bounty, Charmin — brands that seem to be slower to react to the increased demand. I’ve talked with my suppliers more in this year alone than I have in the past five, and I am assured that all seven of our stores will be able to stay well-stocked, but I imagine larger supermarket chains with hundreds of stores could see a problem.”

Related: Unlike the TP crisis, one appliance salesman says it has less to do with demand and everything to do with the supply chain.

Consumers don’t want to get caught unprepared a second time

The main motive behind the latest wave of panic buying, isn’t so much fear of illness or of political unrest; it is the fear of being caught unprepared again.

“(Customers) say that they won’t get caught without what they need again,” said Mentzer, of the continued increase in demand for toilet paper and paper towels. “To compound the shortages, the customers that weren’t buying before are now buying extra, so the shortages are starting to impact stock levels. The dry goods are being well shopped, especially in pasta and baked goods. Yeast and flour continue to be in high demand since they were virtually impossible to get in March and April. Dry pasta and sauces are moving at high rates to the point that we have had to outsource other brands since the national brands haven’t been available.”

The areas where grocers are feeling the most pain in terms of demand surpassing supply is in the category of cleaning supplies.

“Currently cleaning supplies are the absolute worst in stock position that we are dealing with to date,” Mentzer said. “National brands are depleted and we have had to turn to local supply companies to bring in more institutional cleaning products just so we have something for the customers to purchase. National brands are also allocated in extremely small amounts and are sold before we can get them out of the box. We foresee this to be an issue for the next year.”

Related: As families scale down their holiday plans, grocers and supermarkets plan to offer more options.

Grocery shoppers are buying 17% more than in pre-pandemic times

Though there is a continued trend among grocery shoppers of stocking up on essentials — which Leonard likens to “what happens before a snowstorm” — it’s not nearly as intense as it was when the pandemic first struck.

“During the peak in March, sales were up 85%,” said Leonard. “We’ve seen a steady decline, and now sales hover at around 20% (up).”

Stew Leonard’s estimated increase in sales is in line with what is being recorded nationally, too. According to new data from LendingTree, an online lending marketplace, American consumers’ average weekly grocery spending has increased by 17% since pre-pandemic times, up from $163 to $190.

Will that 17% spike? Grocers are preparing for exactly that.

“I can’t predict anything, but I’ve heard customers say they’re nervous about what will be happening over the next few months,” said Stew, adding that his seven locations are stocked for a rush.

Mehmet Gokhan Yalcin, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island who specializes in operations and supply chain management, pointed out that the grocery industry — and its varied suppliers — are still acclimating to the new normal COVID-19 has ushered in. Additionally, as financial hardships deepen and more people fall into the throes of poverty, Yalcin underscored that many cannot afford to stock up right now.

A shopping list of in-demand foods, according to grocers

For those who can afford to stock up on groceries and intend to do so, it’s not a bad idea to know what’s flying off shelves. But be mindful and don’t hoard — that will only induce another shortage.

“The best course of action for customers is to buy what they need,” said Mentzer. “The majority of shortages have come from customers actually over buying and having weeks — and in some cases months — of supplies in their garages and basements. The manufactures have also ramped up their production anticipating increased sales this coming winter. Hopefully, increased production and being mindful of our fellow shoppers will alleviate the shortages going forward.”

Here’s a roundup of what Leonard and Mentzer say is in high demand right now:

  • Bottled water and brand-name seltzers

  • Canned goods

  • Pasta

  • Baked goods

  • Yeast

  • Flour

  • Butter

  • Cream

  • Cheese

  • Bread

  • Premade/ready-made fresh foods and cold cuts

  • Meats, poultry and fish — even less popular fish, like halibut

  • Toilet paper and paper towels

  • Cleaning supplies

  • Frozen foods, particularly frozen meals and pizzas.

  • Turmeric and really any foods hailed as immune-building or flu-fighting, Leonard observed.

  • Citrus fruits (also known to be immunity building)

  • Jarred salsa

  • Pasta sauces, especially marinara.

  • Liquor, beer and wine — even the top-shelf stuff

Sounds like just about everything in the supermarket is seeing a boost in interest! But Leonard emphasized that some categories are indeed experiencing a slump in demand. Those categories include greeting cards, flowers and celebration cakes.

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