Stores begin limiting some items as COVID-19 fears fuel stockpiling

A sign at Bend’s Costco is alerting members it’s limiting the purchase of some items as COVID-19 fears has folks hoarding like they’re prepping for the apocalypse. Fred Meyer stores have been doing it for a week.

People all over the country have been stocking up on toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, paper towels and more, leaving shelves empty and store managers scratching their heads.

Such hoarding resembles typical behavior in the days leading up to a hurricane or other natural disasters. Superstorm Sandy, the deadly hurricane that struck the Northeast in 2012, caused people to crowd stores to buy flashlights, batteries and food.

But what’s different about the hoarding around the coronavirus is that it’s happening all across the country. Consumers are also dealing with an unknown threat and they have no idea when it will be over, consumer experts say.

“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.”′

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

“There’s is not much guidance other than washing your hands,” Liebmann said.

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%.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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