Panic buying during coronavirus outbreak means long lines, crowded spaces, no toilet paper

Shoppers across the country were panic buying this week, leaving grocery stores full of crowded aisles and bare shelves.

At a Safeway in Walnut Creek early Friday morning, the stock of children's medication was low and there was no hand soap in sight. At a Costo in Concord, lines of shoppers snaked around the building long before the store opened. At one Trader Joe's in Oakland, employees were allowing customers in five at a time, leaving long lines of people waiting outside for their turn. But there weren't any wipes for the carts and patrons were packed together in tight quarters at the registers. 

At stores in Vallejo and Petaluma, shoppers were stocking up on guns, ammunition and ready to eat meals. 

"Any time people are uneasy, sales go up, and it's always the same, guns and ammo," said Gabriel Vaughn, owner of the Sportman's Arms in Petaluma. 

Added Vistory Stores store manager Joe Mason in Vallejo: "People are kind of paranoid right now, and want something on hand if the food supply is disrupted so they feel they have some control over their situation." 

Wendy Liebmann, founder and CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, described the behavior as “animalistic.″

COVID-19, the disease that has sickened thousands of people worldwide, has created legions of nervous hoarders who are loading up on canned goods, frozen dinners, toilet paper, and cleaning products. Many want to be prepared as they hear warnings about quarantines and watch a growing number of companies like Twitter, Microsoft and Amazon ask their employees to work from home.

Such stockpiling is expected to last for weeks, resulting in a boon for discounters and grocery stores as well as food delivery services that is also introducing logistical headaches at the same time. Costco Wholesale Corp.’s Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti described the buying frenzy as “off the charts″ throughout the U.S. in a call with investors this week. Some like Kroger Co. are now placing limits on certain items such as cold and flu-related products to five each per order.

Target and Walmart say they are talking to suppliers to replenish bare shelves, but didn’t say how long that could take. And New Jersey-based Campbell Soup Co. said it’s stepping up production because of increased orders from grocery stores and other retailers as demand started growing this week.

Instacart reports a surge in demand for pantry items such as powdered milk and canned goods, as well as personal care products like hand sanitizer and vitamins. Sales are up tenfold across the country but business is particularly heavy in California, Washington, Oregon and New York, where sales are up twenty-fold over the past week, the company said.

Meanwhile, sales of hand sanitizers in the U.S. more than doubled in the four weeks ending Feb. 29 compared to the same period a year ago, according to market research firm Nielsen, while sales of thermometers spiked 52.3% during that same period. Sales of dried beans spiked nearly 18%.

Online purchases of toilet paper have nearly doubled and non-perishable items like canned goods rose nearly 70% during the January and February period, according to Adobe Analytics.

Australian Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, who is leading Australia’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, on Thursday urged against stockpiling of toilet paper.

“There is no reason to denude the shelves of lavatory paper in the supermarkets,” Murphy said in a national televised press conference. “We should continue our normal activity.”

The scene in California was replicated throughout the country and the world. 

Supermarkets from the heart of Milan to provincial towns in Veneto were cleared of the Italian staple, pasta, but also such items as flour and meat, with butcher cases emptying on consecutive days. In one suburban mall supermarket, a customer with a shopping cart piled high with bottled water was told it exceeded limits being put in place.

“This is a big time of anxiety, and we know the biggest source of anxiety is uncertainty,” says Stewart Shankman, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University. “People are trying to get a sense of control by buying things you really don’t need. It’s a false sense of control.”′