Customers are faced with empty shelves in the Nogales Safeway in March as shoppers swamp the store in response to fears about the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Alxe Noden

The New York Times in their emailed Daily Briefing March 20 suggests, “Stock up on a 30-day supply of groceries, household supplies and prescriptions, just in case.”

There’s not a store in the country that would not have empty shelves if even a small percentage of customers followed this advice. My son, Gregory Kimball, a Walgreens store manger in Glendale, Az, said when he orders face masks he usually only gets one. Why? Because there isn’t enough stock on hand at warehouses to support emergency demand. Greg says he has been out of stock on bottled water, paper goods and canned food items. He reorders several times a week but usually does not receive the quantities he asks for during this crisis.

A few years back there was a lot of talk about, “just-in-time supply chains.” The idea was to reduce on hand inventories so that stores only ordered what they needed until their next delivery. It works until you have an emergency. Within hours all stores in an area could be sold out of bottled water, diapers, and staple food items because stores normally carry only several days or weeks supply. 

The next N.Y. Times tip is, “If you take prescription medications, or are low on any over-the-counter essentials, go to the pharmacy sooner rather than later.” First of all, doctors are reluctant to increase certain pain medications without first having a consultation with the patient and requesting new lab tests to justify the increase. Furthermore, the same supply issues exist with prescription drugs and over the counter aids as with other store stocked items. The pressure is on to keep inventories as low as possible, to have just enough on hand until the next delivery from the warehouse.

Next, the Times recommends, “And, in no particular order, make sure you’re set with soap, toiletries, laundry detergent, toilet paper and diapers, if you have small children.” All of the above applies here. It doesn’t take very many people following this advice to empty store shelves.

So what’s a customer to do? Many stores are opening early for senior citizens to give them the opportunity to shop in a less crowded environment. It makes sense but to the extent that seniors stock up they may well empty the shelves by the time the store opens for everyone else. Added to the problem is that many stores are cutting their hours by closing earlier than normal due to staffing problems – employees calling in sick.

I predict if this goes on much longer rationing may be next. In many stores that’s already happening. Some stores are limiting customers to one bottle or one package of water. 

For store buyers it has always been a juggling act – too little inventory and you miss sales – too much inventory and you end up with too many mark downs. The customer has been spoiled by just-in-time inventory. Rarely until now have shoppers had to worry about finding what they needed to make tonight’s dinner.