Remember those empty shelves last spring when you went out for toilet paper or paper towels?
“We were swarmed months ago,” Mark Tate of Tate’s Supermarket in Clymer recalled.
In some cases across the country, the situation is similar now to what played out back in March, when the pandemic first hit and people hunkered down in their homes.
A new surge in COVID-19 cases reportedly is meaning, in many areas of the nation, a new surge in stripping those shelves — though so far that is not the case in Clymer.
“It all starts with someone rushing in and someone else thinks, wrong or right, I better get some, too,” said Tate, a supervisor at a store that has served Clymer and vicinity for more than 100 years. “So far we are maintaining these items such as toiler paper and paper towels. Another week or so, good question — that could change.”
Same with Saltsburg.
“Right now everything is good,” said Donna Spallone, assistant manager at the Shop’n Save in Saltsburg.
She said she can’t promise that it won’t change before the next truck comes, this weekend, to stock the shelves.
However, she said, “paper towels, toilet paper, some of our cleaning supplies, that is all good.”
Elsewhere, Amazon is sold out of most disinfectant wipes and paper towels.
Walmart, whose area outlets include White Township and Burrell Township locations, said this week it is having trouble keeping up with demand for cleaning supplies in some stores.
“The specific categories where we had the most strain at the present time would be bath tissue and cleaning supplies, and our inventory position on hand sanitizer and masks is very good,” Walmart U.S. CEO John R. Furner said during a conference call about the company’s quarterly earnings report this week.
“Dry grocery has recovered in many cases, although there are still parts of the supply chain that are stressed by components that just haven’t been available, including things like aluminum and cans for packaging,” Furner said. “Overall, I’m pleased with the improvements and availability, including the fresh meat department. The team there is doing a great job of getting things back in stock. We still see some stress in things like deli, bacon and breakfast foods, but in general there is product available, just assortments of it smaller than it was.”
He also hailed efforts to source produce and maintain quality and fresh levels there throughout the year. Also, Judith McKenna, CEO of Walmart International, said supply chains around the world are holding up well.
ALDI, which has a store in White Township, said it has remained flexible, “adjusting measures such as purchase limits, as the COVID-19 pandemic, and our shoppers’ needs, have rapidly evolved. Our employees are working hard to keep our shelves stocked, and, like other retailers, we have implemented some product limits where necessary to ensure all customers have access to what they need.”
Supermarket chain Martin’s (including a store in the Regency Mall), Kroger and Publix also are limiting how much toilet paper and paper towels shoppers can buy after demand spiked recently.
“As the supply chain remains challenged for select products, the limits are as follows for all The Giant Company stores (including Martin’s),” said that company’s public relations manager, Ashley Flower. “Limit one on all six-packs and larger of toilet paper and paper towels; limit four on all four-packs and smaller of toilet paper and paper towels, including single rolls. These limits were put in place Oct. 29.”
So far, Giant Eagle hasn’t reported shortages at its stores, including the one along Ben Franklin Road in White Township.
“Giant Eagle has been working tirelessly from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to keep its shelves well-stocked with essential grocery and household items,” said chain spokesman Dick Roberts. “Through daily deliveries to each location, strong relationships with existing suppliers, and the identification of new partners and alternate supply sources, we have been able to return to a strong stock position across the most in-demand items and categories in our stores.”
Tate’s has regulars who have shopped there for years, and specialties including its meat department. It also has had its share of oddities.
“Some things we have not been able to get, such as canning supplies,” Mark Tate said. “A lot of that hasn’t come in for months.”
Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, formerly the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said he doesn’t expect things to be as bad this go-around because lockdowns are being handled on a regional basis and everyone is better prepared.
“A more informed consumer combined with a more informed manufacturer and a more informed retailer should provide all of us with a greater sense of ease and ensure we can meet this growing demand, “ Freeman said.
“To be clear, we are seeing little evidence of stockpiling, and there is no need to create panic,” Martin’s Flower said. “Stores receive deliveries throughout the day and team members are working around the clock to restock shelves and online fulfillment centers. In addition, we’re in frequent contact with local and national supplier partners to ensure the products customers are looking for get on store shelves as quickly as possible.”
A similar stance is offered in an online message by Ideal Market owner-managers Dave Mercik and Dave Mihalik.
“We are working hard to keep our shelves as stocked as possible, and taking extra precautions to provide you with a clean environment in which to shop,” said Mihalik, who is listed as owner-manager in Seward, Geistown and Johnstown.
“We appreciate your continued trust, and are here for you every day,” said Mercik, who is listed as owner-manager in Homer City, Vinco and Seward.
Nationally, the biggest supply issue seems to be paper products: 21 percent of shelves that stock paper towels and toilet paper are empty, the highest level in at least a month, according to market research company IRI. Cleaning supplies have remained level at 16 percent. Before the pandemic, 7 percent of consumer goods were typically out of stock, IRI said.
Contributing to the problem is that roughly 10 percent of the workforce at manufacturing plants where the products are made are calling out sick, mainly because they’ve been in contact with others who tested positive for COVID-19, Freeman said.
Amazon said it is working with manufacturers to get items such as disinfectant wipes, paper towels and hand sanitizer in stock.
“As we enter an uncertain holiday season, we encourage guests to help one another by continuing their traditional grocery shopping and refraining from bulk purchasing,” Giant Eagle’s Roberts said. “If we all work together, we can ensure that everyone has access to the items they need for themselves and their families. We do not currently have any purchase limits in place but will continue to closely monitor inventory of various household items and will consider implementing purchase limits if and when necessary.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.