Empty shelves in grocery stores, food warehouses and big-box superstores have become a common sight with the advance of the coronavirus. People are panic-buying, as if preparing for Armageddon. But is the coronavirus grocery panic over-done and even bordering on insanity?
Probably not. In fact, I can think of at least seven reasons why the coronavirus grocery panic isn’t as irrational as it seems on the surface.
1. A Certain Amount of Panic is a Completely Human Response
We’re all human – and that’s a good place to start. At some level, panic becomes a rational response. But it’s even more so in the face of the coronavirus. As one newsletter I recently received correctly noted, the coronavirus isn’t just a health crisis, but an economic one as well.
People will be fearful in the face of that combination under any circumstances. But when you add the media-induced hysteria, and abundant visual images of people crowded into grocery stores only to be greeted by empty shelves, panic isn’t so off-the-wall.
The natural human response to impending danger is fight or flight syndrome. With a fire hose of confusing yet threatening-sounding news and updates coming at us relentlessly, we don’t know whether to do either – run or fight. In point of fact, there’s nowhere to run to. And we’re facing an invisible enemy that makes the fight a questionable proposition.
Job losses, empty store shelves, confusing information. Yeah, that’s more than enough to induce human panic.
2. The “Just in Time” Inventory System that Dominates the Economy
This gets down to a more mechanical problem, and one that’s been building for a long time. Businesses have been gradually moving toward what’s come to be known as the just-in-time (JIT) inventory management system.
It’s a system in which a company will stock no more inventory than it readily expects to sell on any given day, week, or month. This is accomplished by inventory that arrives on a predetermined as-needed basis. Computerization makes it more possible than ever. It makes it easier to estimate inventory needs based on past sales.
Companies love it because it prevents a buildup of excessive inventory. The less inventory a company has, the less money they have tied up in something that isn’t moving.
From a consumer standpoint, JIT is invisible during normal times. We’ve all come to believe that whatever we need will be available in stores whenever we need it. That’s how effective JIT has been.
But the system is severely tested, and even breaks down, during periods of high demand. Tightly matched with normal consumption patterns, JIT inventory falls short during the panic buying we’re seeing right now.
Put another way, those empty shelves we’re seeing in stores are no accident.
What’s more, stores nowadays have very little extra inventory “in the back”. Most of what’s in the store is already out on the floor and available for consumers. Once that’s gone, there’s nothing more left.
And here we are – done in by an inventory control system most of us know nothing about.
3. People Who Were Unprepared Before the Coronavirus Panic are Forced to Over-Compensate
This has been a problem worldwide, but it seems more acute here in America. Americans may be the most optimistic people on the planet. It may seem like a virtue at times. But it leaves millions unprepared when a legitimate crisis develops.
Let’s start with this factoid: 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. A a full 45% report no savings at all.
That leaves people ill-prepared for the current crisis. Millions are either being furloughed or having their hours cut. In that environment, you might be motivated to take whatever funds you have and run to the grocery store to stock up on necessities, like food, cleaning products, and paper goods.
The lack of savings isn’t the only crisis fear factor. In a nation where so many people consume so many meals outside the home, refrigerators and pantries are often no better than minimally stocked. And let’s not forget the trend of recent decades for people to invest tens of thousand dollars installing designer kitchens in their homes that they never cook in.
That’s a perfect recipe for panic runs to grocery stores. People are stocking up on what should’ve been at home all along. The run on food and other grocery items is largely a result of a lack of even minimal preparation before the fact. It’s exaggerating the impact of emergency stock-ups.
4. More Time at Home = Need for More Groceries
This is a factor that makes the coronavirus grocery panic downright rational. While the authorities are busy urging calm, there’s a very real need for an increased amount of food and supplies in the home. After all, people are no longer spending 40 to 60 hours per week working. Most of that time is now being spent at home.
With many extra hours at home, you need significantly more than you normally stock. That includes more food, more paper goods and more cleaning supplies. And more of just about everything else you can think of.
My wife and I find ourselves using staples, like milk, eggs, bread, and paper goods much more quickly than we have in the past. We’ve also noticed we’re running our dishwasher and emptying the garbage much more frequently. That requires more dishwasher detergent and more garbage bags. And those are just two examples of more at-home necessary consumption.
None of this is based on fear or imagination. It’s a pure practical consequence of being home more.
5. Less Time at Work Means More Inventory is Needed at Home
When you’re at work, you’re taking advantage of supplies provided by your employer. That includes toilet paper, facial tissues, paper towels, napkins, hot beverages, and often cold drinks, snacks, and condiments.
All those products you’re using at work aren’t being consumed at home. But with so many people now either home-based or furloughed, the home is now the source for those same goods.
The increased demand for these products is real, and not the result of panic.
6. Fewer Outings Means More Consumption at Home
While most are focused primarily on having more time on their hands as a result of being out of work, the shutdowns are also limiting off-hours activities. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters, concert venues, and other common off-hours destinations are either closed or offering only limited services. Banks and credit unions are now accepting visits by appointment only. In some parts of the country, even beaches are closed to the public.
All of this means even more time spent at home. And that means even greater consumption of both food and non-food groceries.
Once again, this is a perfectly rational response, and not a panic in any way.
We can probably also add that since less money is being spent outside the home on entertainment and related activities, there’s more to spend on groceries and basic supplies. Once again, that’s not driven by panic, but by the availability of extra money.
7. Fewer Meals Eaten Out = More Meals Eaten Home
According to a United States Department of Agriculture report food consumed outside the home overtook food consumed at home for the first time in 2010. By that year, 50.2% of food purchases were made outside the home. The report also indicated the percentage is even higher among higher income households. We have every reason to suspect that percentage has only grown in the past decade.
Tens of thousands of restaurants across the country have either been reduced to providing take-out and delivering meals or have closed down operations completely.
With this major source of meals either radically reduced or completely eliminated in most households, the demand for food prepared at home has spiked dramatically in the past few weeks. If you were consuming 50% of your food outside the home through February, by late March that figure may have dropped down to 10%, or even zero.
That would naturally cause a dramatic increase in a household’s food purchases at grocery stores. When you multiply that times more than 100 million households, you get exactly the coronavirus grocery panic we’re seeing play out right now.
Only it’s not really a panic – in a country were so many meals were previously consumed outside the home, the sudden shift to stock up on food at home is a yet another perfectly rational response.
What We’re Doing to Minimize the Coronavirus Grocery Panic in Our Lives
I provided the list above to offer at least some reassurance that the coronavirus grocery panic isn’t totally or even primarily the byproduct of millions of people running around like chickens with their heads cut off. There are all kinds of reasons for the run on grocery stores, and while some are definitely emotionally-driven, most have very practical roots.
In fact, we can even add one more driver, which is the unknown length of the coronavirus lockdown. If you could be sure it would last only two or three weeks, you might refrain from rushing off to the grocery store. But if it seems open-ended – as is now the case – a precautionary stock-up of food and supplies is a perfectly rational strategy.
My wife and I did our primary grocery store run about a week and a half ago. We normally go grocery shopping every other Friday night. But on the Thursday night before that particular shopping trip, our daughter sent pictures of empty grocery store shelves at one of our local stores. Upon seeing that, I made a snap decision that we were going shopping on Thursday and couldn’t afford to wait until Friday.
By the time my wife got home, she had already made the same decision. Off we went, and we’re glad we did.
We normally do maintain an excess inventory of both food and nonfood items. But on that particular Thursday, we were intentional about stocking up on any items we considered to be strategically important. That included basic food items, like cooking oil, sugar, flour, pasta, and frozen vegetables. And of course, nonfood items, like paper towels, toilet paper, napkins, and cleaning supplies.
We’re glad we did, because the situation got much worse by the very next day.
Shorter, More Focused Shopping Runs
Since that major shopping run, we’ve been making a series of small, quick runs any time we’re on our way to someplace else. For example, after going to get my driver’s license renewed and taking a run to our credit union last Tuesday, we made an unscheduled stop at ALDI to supplement our inventory.
That was a good move, because we didn’t have the pressure of making a major shopping trip, and the store wasn’t particularly crowded at the time we went. We’re planning on more such trips to avoid the pressure of bigger shopping runs, when everything we need may not be available.
We might make a stop at a grocery store, Walmart, a dollar store, or even a pharmacy, to get specific items, like paper goods. The other day I made an emergency stop at a grocery store, and came out with two bags of flour. That proved to be a good idea, because flour hasn’t been readily available most other places. The situation has deteriorated into a catch-as-catch-can scenario where you have to be ready to grab whatever you need whenever and wherever it’s available.
We’re experimenting with new and more healthy recipes. It’s part of our shot at turning a necessity into a virtue.
I read somewhere that most people get comfortable with the same seven or eight meals. We do it because it makes it easier to prepare meals on automatic pilot. Let’s face it, preparing new and different meals takes more effort and imagination than falling back on routine.
Since there isn’t much routine now, we have the time to do some experimenting. Hopefully, we’ll come up with a series of new and more healthy meals that will become our new routine when things go back to normal.
Whenever that might be…
Final Thoughts on the Coronavirus Grocery Panic
If I’m right about Reasons #4 through #7 the coronavirus grocery panic may be with us for the duration of the crisis. And not to be a prophet of doom, but it could even get worse as disruptions in the grocery supply lines take hold.
If that does happen, what appears to be panic buying will be more rational than ever. But we have to do it intentionally and unemotionally, and most of all – strategically.
Do you think we’re in a coronavirus grocery panic, or do you agree with me that it’s more rational than it seems on the surface? What are you doing to deal with the situation, and what would you recommend others do?