With signs of panic buying—think aisles emptying of toilet paper—showing up in cities such as New York and Los Angeles as new lockdown orders hit regions across the country, how do growers and shippers feel about dealing with panic buying yet again?
“I honestly don’t expect to see anything like we saw last spring again because most everyone understands that grocery stores won’t be closed,” says John Harris of Fort Morgan CO-based Paradigm Fresh.
Indeed while spring saw a run on consumer goods such as paper items, cleaning products and shelf-stable food items such as canned fish and bagged pasta, in the produce world longer-lasting items such as potatoes, onions, carrots and apples also saw big, more immediate surges in demand.
“Last time we also got caught thinking we’d never go outside again. Now we know what to expect in a lockdown,” says Ken Gad of South Easton, MA-based Cambridge Farms Inc. “There’s a big difference this time because we know how to plan now.”
Scenes from the grocery store shelves in the early days of the pandemic.
Experience paying off
That experience seems to be a key comfort for growers and shippers. “We’ve already adapted to this kind of shopping—a lot of retailers haven’t, for example, really relaxed their limits on buying goods,” says Gad. “They’re not going to feed their family any different in a lockdown than if they’re not. I don’t see a changing of the buying patterns in produce or dairy or meat. People might start stocking up paper towels and toilet paper again though.”
After all, he adds, retailers don’t want to get stuck with product or see product dying on their shelves. “And in the beginning of the last lockdown, if you went into a store for the first two to three weeks, you’d find only two bags of potatoes on the shelf. After that initial two to three-week surge, you never saw an empty shelf again,” says Gad.
As it is, the timing of these current sets of lockdowns is running right into the timing of holidays such as Thanksgiving. “If the shelves were to go empty due to panic buying right now, they’d likely be pretty sparse for a while as the country as a whole is at full capacity with freight right now,” says Harris. “The stores are going to get what they’re going to get because the pipeline is full and there’s no room to add extra capacity.”
Holidays factoring in
“Most growers increase their plantings to compensate for increased demand during the holidays. But you can’t react spontaneously to demand that exceeds what you have planted for in the case of a nationwide lockdown,” says Russ Widerburg of Oxnard, CA’s Boskovich Farms Inc. “We can only sell what we have growing in the ground.”
That said, companies such as Boskovich, which serves both retail and foodservice sectors, have room to move. “We can improvise a little better than most companies because of our diversification with retail and foodservice. When retail outpaces foodservice, we can utilize supplies from foodservice to help compensate for increased retail demand and vice versa,” Widerburg adds.
Indeed, as lockdowns fall in place, the greater concern seems to not be for retail movement necessarily. “Foodservice will have issues. They came back the way they did because it was summer and the outdoor season,” says Gad, noting that as winter inches closer, that makes outdoor eating more and more challenging.