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Supermarkets Scramble To Meet Demand During Coronavirus Pandemic

Empty shelves, like these seen in a Tampa Bay area Publix in mid-March, have been a common occurence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has filled homes across the globe but has emptied shelves at supermarkets.

Residents looking to stock up on essentials have left stores trying to catch up with the demand.

Grocery stores from mom-and-pop operations to major chains like Publix and Winn Dixie have felt the impact of the widespread panic buying that has left their supply chains scrambling for more supply.

“We are asking for the help of our customers and encourage them not to stockpile,” said Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix, in an email. “The grocery industry is resilient. We need to provide an opportunity for the supplies to get back into the pipeline and see normal shopping activity. Grocery stores remain open, so we encourage our customers to shop as they normally would.”

Unlike hurricanes, the pandemic is affecting every state across the country and beyond, Brous said. As a result, the industry is seeing stockpiling by consumers, and thus pushing the limits of consumer-packaged goods to rebound quicker than normal.

CORONAVIRUS: Complete Coverage From WUSF And Health News Florida

Two weeks ago, Publix announced a change in their hours companywide to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for “preventive sanitation and restock product on shelves.” Brous said that Publix also decided to suspend its refund policy to reduce the stockpiling.

Winn Dixie announced similar changes last week in a press release signed by President Anthony Hucker, saying it will begin closing at 9 p.m. to give associates “the time they need to appropriately restock our stores, and ensure our stores are able to conduct additional sanitation procedures in service of providing a shopping experience our customers can always count on.”

Despite the struggle to meet demand, the supply chain remains intact, according to Donna Davis, academic director of the University of South Florida Monica Wooden Center for Supply Chain Management and Sustainability.

Because there has been no structural damage done as in a hurricane or tornado, the only issue is that the chain simply does not have enough manpower to meet the extraordinary customer demand at this time.

Davis points out the fact that there is no end in sight to the situation has resulted in a lot of this hoarding behavior.

“I don’t want to call them bad people because they’re stocking up,” Davis said. “It has created issues, though, for the next people to go in. So, if we could all just get back to ‘buy what you need’ and ‘don’t buy more than you need,’ then it would stabilize.”

It’s typical to see mass panic buying during times of crises like hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, she said, however, people have resorted to planning for the worst-case scenario this time and have emptied the shelves in an unprecedented way.

“I have never personally seen a global event like this that affects supply chains, and most companies have never seen anything like this, too,” Davis said. “And the other thing that’s difficult for individual people that are staying at home, as well as companies, is the uncertainty around it.”

READ MORE: Publix, Winn-Dixie To Have Plexiglass Barriers For Cashiers As Coronavirus Spreads

However, Davis still feels that no permanent damage has been done to the supply chain, and that once everything does return to normal, this event will simply be a lesson for companies and for people on how to handle a global crisis and fear of the unknown.

“People should have a high level of being reassured that goods are moving, that goods are in the supply chain,” she said, “and patience — a little patience — will help them go through this.”

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Dylan Rudolph is the WUSF Radio News Intern for the spring 2020 semester.