No, We Are Not Running Out of Food and Toilet Paper
Little did I know that all of America had the same idea. The store where I shopped, one of the busiest in the supermarket chain where I work, was busier than I had ever seen. Lines were longer than when a blizzard was expected. People seem to be grabbing anything that was still left on the shelf, though I didn’t really see anyone who was hoarding too much of any particular product.
As someone who helps manage a supermarket, I probably should have known better and done my shopping before. Sales had been going up steadily in the weeks prior. In the town where I work, I was seeing people shop who I had never seen before. Hand sanitizer, masks, and rubbing alcohol are sold the minute they come in (when they do come in). But almost all products were still on the shelf until Thursday when everyone went to the store in response to Trump’s address to the nation and the NBA shutting down the day before.
When you go to your local supermarket or grocery store, you might notice that many products are running low or entirely out of stock. Chances are, most of the frozen fruit and vegetables are gone, along with frozen pizza and waffles. Same with many products in the center of the store like canned vegetables, pasta, pasta sauce, and rice. Your favorite kind of bread is sold out and you have to buy the generic. In the meat department, you’ll probably see beef but maybe not pork or chicken. Depending on when you go to the store, they might not have milk or eggs. And there’s probably no toilet paper.
The good news is, it’s not because the country is running out of food or toilet paper. When we get deliveries, all of these products do come in, in large amounts, though not all varieties for everything. There’s no indication that we will be running out of these products any time soon. So why are so many shelves empty?
There are two reasons. One is that the things you want to buy are the same things everyone else wants to buy. For example, if you go to the canned vegetables section, there’s probably very little corn, peas, and green beans, but all the beets and sauerkraut are still there. Stores do use more space for more popular products, but the relationship is not linear (you can’t have a fourth of a row of sauerkraut), so when demand suddenly spikes the most popular products are always going to be gone first.
The bigger problem is getting all that product from warehouses and factories to the store. There are only so many people who work at the warehouses packing the product, and so much space for them to work in. Everyone is working overtime, but it’s not as if they can suddenly hire more people in the course of days. And once everything is palletized, they need to go from the warehouse to the store. Again, there are only so many trucks and drivers, and in this case, there are rules on how many hours drivers can work.
With certain products, the delivery schedule is also an issue. Some products are delivered every day. Others might be delivered only twice a week. This schedule works in normal times, but not during a once-in-a-lifetime event. If eggs come in on Monday, and you go to the store on Tuesday and it’s already empty, well…better ask a clerk when the next delivery will come in.
To sum up, there is still plenty of food and toilet paper, just short term problems with getting all that product to the stores to meet demand. What can you do to help? Try as much as possible to buy only what you need. No, you do not need four packages of toilet paper; one will last you for ten days. No, you do not need to get that jar of peanut butter “just in case” when you haven’t had a peanut butter sandwich in ten years. When everyone’s shopping behavior goes back to normal, your local grocery stores will return to normal too.