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Marlboro Food Emporium owner, Daniel Doleh talks about his experiences during the Covid-19, and possible second wave

Asbury Park Press

It was just a little over eight months ago that toilet paper and paper towels disappeared from supermarket shelves as stuck-at-home customers, worried about the coronavirus bloom, went on a buying spree.

With the COVID-19 pandemic in its second wave, and with Thanksgiving, a holiday that by itself sends crowds to the store, a week away, can we expect another run on store shelves? 

Not this time, industry experts say. Supermarkets, along with the companies and wholesalers that supply products that end up on shelves, restocked and recovered after the spring buying binge. 

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Some stores might still have buying limits on in-demand items such as toilet paper, paper towels and cleaning supplies. Others may have put new ones in place. But supermarkets can handle the demand, officials said.

Lessons learned from this past spring, “have prepared supermarkets for whatever comes next,” said Linda Doherty, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Food Council, which represents supermarkets and the food industry.

“Grocers are well positioned for a surge of sales going into the expected busy holiday season as we anticipate smaller gatherings and restrictions to continue for indoor dining,” she said. 

“To ensure options are available for customers during the holiday and for any future restrictions that may be imposed, supermarkets have been sourcing additional suppliers, bringing in new brands and building holiday and winter reserves.”

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The initial wave of the global pandemic hammered supermarkets and their supply chains. In an industry where supplies are based on predictable customer behavior, buyers suddenly snapped up everything from paper products, liquid soap and cleaning products to meats, frozen vegetables, pasta sauce and yeast.

Supermarkets sales are “brisk” now but retailers are not seeing panic buying or the levels of stockpiling they saw earlier this year, Doherty said.

Lou Scaduto Jr., president and chief executive officer of Middletown-based Food Circus Super Markets, which owns five Super Foodtown supermarkets in Monmouth County, said the company is “better prepared” for what’s ahead.

“I do see an uptick in the business and now with more restrictions in New Jersey, I expect demand will increase,'” Scaduto said. “I do not expect the ‘hysteria/panic buying’ like we saw at the start of COVID-19.”

Still customers occasionally may see an empty shelf at the supermarket.

The supply chain continues to adapt and make adjustments to the demand created by the pandemic, said Mehmet Gokhan Yalcin, an assistant professor of supply chain management at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Business.

“Are we going to see as drastic of empty shelves as we did in the past? No,” Yalcin said. “We will see, sporadically, some empty shelves because we’re still working on learning  and responding because of the supply and demand dynamics.”

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Retailers are reacting differently.

“Some retailers have created a strong inventory of toiletry and paper good products and others are reinstituting product limits to be sure all customers will have access to these items,” Doherty said. Supplies remain limited on national brand disinfectant and other household cleaning products, but private label brands are available, she added.

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At ShopRite, there are some purchase limits on select items, including paper and cleaning products, spokeswoman Karen O’Shea said. “We are working closely with our suppliers to keep our stores stocked during the traditionally busy Thanksgiving holiday shopping season.”

At the start of the pandemic, ShopRite quickly adapted and made changes, she said. “We hired more staff, expanded warehouse capabilities and implemented safety measures across our stores,” O’Shea said. “All that work has prepared us for a second wave and allows us to provide the best possible shopping experience for our customers.”

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Wegmans said it has maintained purchase limits in key categories including paper products, household cleaning products, Wegmans peanut butter, kitchen garbage bags and food storage bags.

“To ensure we have options available for customers in every category, our merchandising team has spent the last several months sourcing additional suppliers, bringing in new brands, and working with our Wegmans Brand suppliers to build up our own holiday and winter reserves, in our own warehouses, as well as at our suppliers,” Wegmans Food Markets spokeswoman Marcie Rivera said in a statement.

A spokeswoman said Stop & Shop is not experiencing the level of stockpiling seen at the start of the pandemic. 

“We are well-positioned in terms of Thanksgiving turkeys and other staples and encourage everyone to continue buying just what they need — there is no need for panic,” spokeswoman Stefanie Shulman said in a statement.  

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Earlier this week, the supermarket placed a limit of two multi-packs of toilet paper and paper towels per customer. Limits on the disinfectant wipes and household cleaners, in demand since March, vary by store.

At Acme, stock levels of cleaners and soaps are an “ongoing issue,” the company said in a statement. 

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On Thursday, Acme is going to start limiting purchases of toilet paper and paper towels. “Because supply can vary from store to store, customers should check with their local store about specific stock levels.”

Scaduto, the CEO at Food Circus, said paper products, including paper towels, are becoming “a little strained again.” Supplies on items like holiday lasagna, canned pumpkin, canned and jarred gravy and boxed stuffing will be available but limited, he said.

David P. Willis, an award-winning business writer, has covered business and consumer news at the Asbury Park Press for more than 20 years. He writes APP.com’s What’s Going There and Press on Your Side columns and can be reached at dwillis@gannettnj.com. 

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