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COVID-19 sparks rush on essentials: TP, cleaning products, non-perishable food

Greater Victoria grocery stores were caught off guard this week by the volume of customers and their desire to stock up on essentials, and not-so-essentials, as fear over the COVID-19 outbreak spread.
toilet paper photo

Greater Victoria grocery stores were caught off guard this week by the volume of customers and their desire to stock up on essentials, and not-so-essentials, as fear over the COVID-19 outbreak spread.

Many shoppers found bare shelves for a few products, such as hand sanitizer, as they focused their attention on essentials such as toilet paper, cleaning products and non-perishable food.

The rush came after the province’s top health officials advised on Thursday against all non-essential travel outside Canada and recommended all non-essential gatherings of more than 250 people be cancelled. They also noted that anyone travelling outside of Canada would be required to stay away from work or school for 14 days upon their return.

“With the announcement, it caught everybody off guard, we were really not prepared for what came our way business-wise yesterday and today, too,” said Craig Cavin, operations manager for Country Grocer’s south Island stores. “We are reacting as much as possible to keep staffing levels up but it’s not easy.”

Whether it was the spectre of self-isolation or simply seeing others stocking up, shoppers took to the stores in droves.

“It was busy last week and at first it was just toilet paper, but [Thursday] and [Friday] it’s been crazy, and now they’re buying everything,” said a cashier at one of Thrifty Foods’ Victoria stores.

Robert Jay, vice-president of Fairway Markets, said: “Definitely everyone was caught off guard here. It’s been a crush of people and it definitely has stuff flying off the shelves; people are panicking.”

Jay said last week’s focus was bleach, cleaning products and toilet paper. This week, shoppers have broadened their horizons.

And it’s not just that they are buying a lot of canned goods and non-perishable food items, but people are buying it faster than staff can stock the shelves.

“We are constantly stocking shelves — whatever we are getting in we are filling shelves,” he said. “We can’t seem to keep up in some cases, we fill up shelves and they’re empty again.”

Cavin said Country Grocer is seeing the same broader buying pattern this week. “Our soup was cleaned out last night, and our canned fruit and vegetables were hit pretty hard and now it’s a lot of Cryovac and frozen items, the longer lasting stuff, that’s starting to be hit hard now,” he said.

At one Victoria Thrifty Foods location, an older shopper, who asked not to be named, said she had been watching people’s baskets as she walked the store’s aisles. She said while no one wants to be seen as paranoid, you also want to be prepared. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” she said.

Jay said while the stores have been incredibly busy and staff are being run ragged, shoppers have been polite and courteous.

“So far I haven’t seen any cases of hoarding. No one is grabbing everything they can. People are buying a few cans here and there, no one is grabbing armfuls or cases or filling up their buggies. They are thinking about their neighbours, and that’s important to think about your neighbours, not just yourself.”

Both Cavin and Jay said, so far, the supply chain is intact and stores on the Island are still getting items from across the country and around the world.

“Supply-chain wise and product-wise, there’s no issues at the moment,” said Cavin, noting they still have toilet paper on their shelves and in their warehouse. “That might change depending on what happens at the borders.”

Jay said there have been cases of being shorted on some items by suppliers, who are trying to keep all of their customers happy by giving them portions of their orders in the face of high demand.

“We’re getting ‘just-in-time’ inventory and, during spikes like these, it means there’s no extra supply,” he said.

The same scenes are playing out across Canada with long lines and empty shelves at many stores.

In Toronto, shopper Harmony Samra said her trip to the No Frills grocery was chaotic — customers filling multiple carts seemingly with anything they could grab off the shelves. “People were everywhere,” she said.

Sobey’s, parent company of Thrifty Foods, is not placing limits on any products outside of regular promotional activity through its flyers, said spokeswoman Jacquelin Weatherbee. The company has seen a lift in sales in certain categories starting at the end of February and accelerating through March.

“We saw overall elevated sales increases clearly attributable to public concerns surrounding coronavirus,” she said.

Sobey’s customers are increasingly purchasing non-perishables, such as household cleaning supplies, paper products, and canned and packaged health foods, she said. One thing that binds all Canadian shoppers, it seems, is the focus on toilet paper.

“It’s been a crazy few weeks as consumers are obviously stocking up on essentials in case they have to self-quarantine,” said Dino Bianco, chief executive of Mississauga-based Kruger Products, which makes Cashmere and Purex brand toilet paper, along with other tissue products.

Retailers have increased their orders from the company by about 20% to 50%, he said, and the company is working overtime at its seven Canadian plants to meet demand.

“There is no tissue shortage,” he said, adding the company has the raw materials to produce the product and is just catching up on demand, which he believes should happen within the coming days.

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— With files from The Canadian Press