Purple tier doesn't mean panic buy: Consumer experts weigh in on empty shelves

In the last week or so, a lot of stuff that sold out when the pandemic shelter-in-place began, is selling out again resulting in some empty shelves and restricted buying quotas.

As we hunker down again awaiting vaccines and medicines to create a safety net, we must also create a different more rational attitude towards overbuying and hoarding food and supplies. 

When the pandemic began, toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectants, sugar, rice flour and other items were swept from the shelves.

Consumer Brands Association executive Katie Denis says though actual pandemic sales were up only 21% above normal, that was enough to create months of shortages that forced rationing.

"Ultimately, putting in some of those restrictions is responsible and that people buy what they need and not more than what they need," said Ms. Denis.

Some over buyers bought massive amounts of items, then resold them on third party selling web sites at obscene profits. Though it took time to ramp up and restock, manufacturers learned a lot.

"They are absolutely better set up. The supply chains are definitely becoming more resilient," said Ms. Denis.

Nonetheless the current buying spike of just 10% is already causing some shortages.

"I think it's in relation to moving up to the purple tier for the majority of our state," said  Ron Fong, CEO of the California Grocers Association.

But, because manufacturers are already ramping up, it should not last so long this time.

"I don't think there's gonna be a shortage, you know, like there was before. Manufacturers have pretty much figured it out," said Keith Trimble of family-owned Village Market in Oakland. He has avoided rationing so far this time around because of cooperative customers and product production changes.  

"They cut back on the selection, the variety of items they were selling and they also seemed to increase the package size," said  Trimble. "There's less people doing it this time around, I mean, again, it's uncertainty and worry for people," said Mr. Fong.

Beyond any overbuying or hoarding, the time of the year now plays into this in a good way. "Thanksgiving and Christmas are the Superbowl for grocery stores," said Fong.

There's no real shortage of paper products; just a shortage of trucks to deliver it when ordered, which is being corrected. But disinfectant wipes will continue to be in short supply until new manufacturing lines go active in the spring.

"Buy what you need. Don't buy more than what you need. There should be enough for everyone as long as we follow those principles," said Ms. Denis.

One tip: seriously consider having grocery items delivered to avoid going into stores that may soon have limits on the number of customers let in at any one time.