By Jaewon Kang and Saabira Chaudhuri
Supermarkets are rationing grocery-store staples and trying to
restock more quickly to deal with surging demand, while planning
new ways to feed a rising number of self-isolating consumers as
coronavirus spreads across the U.S. and Europe.
The move to limit purchases of sought-after items comes despite
some retailers stocking up on staples in anticipation of a rush. As
the epidemic worsens, grocers are exploring redeploying workers,
curbing stores' operating hours and tapping the military and
volunteers to deliver food.
Kroger Co. has limited the number of sanitizing, cold and flu
products to five each per order in stores and online, after seeing
a surge in demand for them in recent weeks.
"All of our teams, our stores, our supply-chain team, our
procurement folks are incredibly focused on making sure that they
stay in stock on those critical items," Chief Executive Rodney
McMullen said during the company's earnings call last week.
The nation's largest supermarket chain, with more than 2,700
stores, has also stopped offering product samples to minimize
contact between consumers and store workers. Other virus measures
include suspending air travel and recommending that internal and
supplier meetings take place virtually.
Publix Super Markets Inc. has started limiting purchases of
products including bleach, eating utensils, facial tissue, rubbing
alcohol and other sanitizing products to two per customer. The
chain, which has more than 1,200 stores in the Southeast, has also
suspended sampling and demonstrations.
Albertsons Cos., which owns the Safeway, Jewel-Osco and Vons
chains, said many of its stores are capping the number of
high-demand items shoppers can buy. The rationing is primarily
targeted at hand sanitizers and household cleaners, of which
customers can buy four or five depending on the region.
Bottled water, toilet paper, pasta, rice and some canned foods
continue to be among the fastest-selling items, store workers
U.S. sales of hand sanitizers jumped 313% for the week ending
Feb. 29 from the same week a year earlier, according to shopping
data released by research consultancy Nielsen. Sales of aerosol
disinfectants, wipes and masks also soared, along with oat milk,
dried beans and canned meat, the data showed.
Jason Ackerman, co-founder and former chief executive of online
grocer Fresh Direct, said food retailers have seen concentrated
levels of stockpiling in nonperishable categories and are
"They have to put limits because suppliers won't be able to keep
up with the demand," said Mr. Ackerman, adding that limiting
purchases could also minimize reselling.
Shoppers have been stocking up in Europe too, Nielsen data
In the U.K., Tesco PLC, Walmart Inc.'s Asda Group and the Co-Op
Group are among chains restricting purchases of items such as baked
beans, bottled water, long-life milk, bleach, hand sanitizers and
Gojo Industries, which makes Purell hand sanitizer, said it has
significantly increased production by adding shifts, extending
working hours and boosting capacity.
Not all manufacturers can ramp up production, though, and
shoppers are likely to see shortages of items that originate in
places hit hard by the virus, consultants say, citing the
difficulty of quickly switching to a source in a different
"It takes months to find an alternative and there isn't supply
out there just waiting," says Ged Futter, a former Asda executive
who now works at grocery consulting firm the Retail Mind.
Toilet paper has emerged as a flashpoint in several countries,
as shoppers prepare for possible supply disruptions or
In Australia, Woolworths Group Ltd. last week began restricting
customers to four packs of toilet paper online and in stores,
saying it was trying to maintain stock levels even as its suppliers
ramp up local production. A video of two women fighting over a
trolley of toilet paper at a Woolworths store recently went
"Don't make it difficult for the vulnerable, elderly, people
with disabilities to find basic necessities," tweeted Brad Hazzard,
the New South Wales minister for health and medical research,
alongside a photo of an empty toilet-roll aisle.
For food distributors and retailers, labor is increasingly
coming into focus. Distributor United Natural Foods Inc. is
monitoring levels of demand from retailers to decide whether it
needs to add more routes for truckers.
Supermarkets are working to ensure that they have enough
warehouse employees who can deliver items to stores and are putting
staffers in higher-demand areas, such as preparing online orders
for pickup, said Jim Hertel, senior vice president at grocery
consultancy Inmar Willard Bishop Analytics.
"People don't know exactly what they're dealing with. They're
trying to figure out what the puts and takes are going to be from a
demand standpoint," Mr. Hertel said. "We're going to run into: How
fast can the industry respond?"
In the U.K., the government on Monday said it would relax
nighttime curfews on deliveries to supermarkets to help retailers
restock more quickly. It also said it was ready to extend the
number of hours truckers can work to help the industry with any
shortage of delivery drivers.
"While there is plenty of stock available, the challenge for
retailers has been to make sure all of it reaches shelves at the
earliest opportunity," said Andrew Opie, director of food &
sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, an industry trade
The industry is also talking with officials as to how best to
supply people forced to self-isolate. Delivery startup Instacart
Inc. recently rolled out a feature that allows staff to leave
groceries at the doorstep and send a photo to customers to alert
them, rather than handing over goods in person.
In the U.K., while most large supermarkets offer home delivery,
the number of pickers, drivers and vehicles is limited. Ideas
floated on a call between government and industry representatives
Monday included asking the army to supply drivers and vehicles, and
tapping volunteer groups who already deliver food to elderly
people, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Write to Jaewon Kang at firstname.lastname@example.org and Saabira
Chaudhuri at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 10, 2020 11:56 ET (15:56 GMT)
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