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What’s the Point of Panic Shopping?

With growing coronavirus fears, grocery-store dry goods and bottled water are being bought out — but it’s not really necessary

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US-ECONOMY-COSTCO Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Anticipating the spread of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., many American shoppers are doing what they do best: Buying in bulk. Big stores like Costco and Walmart as well as smaller grocery chains and local markets are reporting sales spikes as concerned buyers snap up items like hand sanitizer and large quantities of non-perishable foods as if preparing for a hurricane. Suddenly, every aisle of every store is Guy’s Grocery Games.

But COVID-19 isn’t exactly like a natural disaster, says Karan Girotra, a professor of operations and technology at Cornell Tech, and the frenzied shopping is probably overkill: A storm could reasonably interrupt supply chains, but COVID-19 doesn’t threaten the US supply chain for food, which is mostly intracontinental. Instead, overeager shopping — borne of a fear that customers will be stuck at home for prolonged periods of time during an enforced quarantine and that supplies will run out — is a problem in and of itself. Photos of empty store shelves on social media are the result (and, in a feedback loop, the cause) of “panic buying,” not a real sign of an actual shortage.

“Panic buying becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Girotra. “A lot of people think [the store] will run out, and then they do run out... Irrational behavior, rumors, misinformation can create short-term logistical issues.”

CDC Director Robert Redfield has broadcast the same message, stating that there’s no need for healthy Americans to start stockpiling food supplies. But according to Nielsen data, customers are already doing so, stocking their “pandemic pantries” with food like fruit snacks (up 13 percent during the one-week period ending February 22,) dried beans (up 10 percent), pretzels (up 9 percent), and even oat milk (a huge 305 percent increase, which could be attributed to a jump in market share over the last year). Their habits are occasionally encouraged by the media: USA Today, for example, has a list of groceries “you need to buy in case of self-quarantine.”

Big box stores like Costco have been notably slammed, selling out of goods like hand sanitizer, bath tissue, and bottled water — though there’s no reason to expect water lines will go out. But smaller bulk food stores are also struggling to keep up with panic-buying crowd, and “co-ops and smaller chains are less able to handle this short-term [demand] spike,” says Girotra.

Joe Holtz, who co-founded the Park Slope Food Coop in 1972, says last week was the store’s biggest ever for sales. He denies news reports that the co-op was “chaos,” with customers fighting over cans of tuna. But it was definitely packed, as members, who must work some shifts to shop there, stocked up on items like canned foods and bulk grains, depleting supplies. “We have a fantastic inventory ordering system and a great bulk buyer, and he never runs out of stuff,” says Holtz — until now. “We ran out of 10 kinds of bulk beans over the weekend.”

In San Francisco, worker-run Rainbow Grocery also scrambled to keep up with demand. “I don’t know what specific news hit, but we got [almost] ransacked this weekend,” says Cody Frost, Rainbow’s marketing coordinator. “There’s still some empty shelves because we went through our stock and have been having a tough time having it restocked.” Pasta, canned beans, soups, pasta sauces, and 24-pound bags of rice are all gone or in short supply. The reaction reminds Frost of customers who stocked up during previous California wildfires, when smoke prevented people from going outside.

In Park Slope, Holtz and his colleagues considered putting limits on the number of items customers can buy, but decided against it. “If someone comes here intent on buying excessive amounts, they’ve already made a certain decision, they’ve assessed what’s going on, they’re probably not, in my opinion, in the mood to negotiate,” he says.

Shoppers already worried about leaving the house have turned to online delivery services like Amazon Fresh, Instacart, and Fresh Direct, and are likely to continue. “Delivery services could really be a blessing in this environment,” says Girotra. Fresh Direct’s chief merchant officer Scott Crawford says he’s seen a “significant surge” in Fresh Direct orders from existing customers and a “wave” of new customers, too. Amazon has told its Amazon Fresh and Prime customers to expect delays as it’s overwhelmed by demand. Instacart’s sales rates were up 10 times the average in Washington, California, and Oregon over a 72-hour period ending Tuesday, March 3, and 20 times usual in New York, with top search items including canned foods and powdered milk. And those opting into delivery could continue to grow: Today, Instacart announced the U.S. rollout of a “Leave at my door” option, which would allow customers to receive their orders entirely without human contact in case of self-quarantine.

The irony of the panic-buyers, though, is that they’re probably not the most in need. “There’s a distributional issue in all panic-buying and crises,” says Girotra. “We saw it in protective treatment already: people went out, perhaps the folks with the most means and information and education, to collect face masks — but these people might not be the folks who are really at the front lines and most in need of the fast masks.” Health providers, Uber drivers, grocery store workers, or Fresh Direct delivery people might need those masks more: They’re actually much more vulnerable, perhaps going without sick leave or healthcare. Similarly, it’s the families that didn’t have the time or money to stock up on oat milk or bulk beans from the co-op that might be end up needing extra food in the end.