Grocery shopping during the pandemic

I have not been to the grocery store in nearly two weeks. I have been going out just for my daily walks though one day I did take a drive to the countryside for about half an hour just to get a change of scenery and also because I did not want to risk my car battery going dead from lack of use.

There are mixed reports in the media about the reliability of the supply chain for grocery stores. Authorities assure us that there is no shortage of food and other essentials except that suppliers have had to switch the way their products are packaged from largely serving restaurants to serving grocery stores. But some people report empty stores. How well and how frequently the stores are restocked may depend on where you live. Some places report that most items are available while in other areas the shelves are stocked each morning but get quickly emptied by people still panic buying. It appears that if people buy just what they need for a week or two, instead of months, there would be no problem.

This article gives some common sense suggestions on how to shop and what to do to minimize the risk of getting the virus.

Don’t hoard. Panic-buying has prompted some people to fight over toilet paper and pilfer from others’ shopping carts. Take what you need for the week; leave food for others. Be reassured that while there may be some empty shelves and temporary shortages of some items, food makers are confident in the supply chain and that we’ll have plenty to eat.

Remember that the check out clerks are the ones at most risk from getting infected and are under considerable stress and we owe it to them to minimize their risk and the article suggests some things we can do.

Be kind to your checkout person. Try to maintain a reasonable distance at checkout. If paying with cash, set the money on the counter rather than handing it to the cashier. And given that this is an opportunity for in-person social interaction, try to make the most of it and be friendly. “Try to maintain distance at checkout, but be pleasant and supportive,” Dr. Amler said. “There is a risk to them, being in that environment all the time. You might want to thank them for working during this hectic period.”

I will need to do some grocery shopping fairly soon. What I may do is try out for the first time the option of ordering and paying online and then going at a designated time to have the groceries loaded in the trunk, thus avoiding going into the store at all.

I have been having contact with others online during this time but a couple of days ago on my walk I encountered my neighbor with her dog. While keeping the recommended six feet apart from each other, we chatted for about 20 minutes. I did not even pet her dog who usually gives me a rapturous greeting as if we are best buddies. At the end as we parted, we both commented about how nice it was to speak to a three-dimensional person rather than someone we see on a screen. There is something special about direct human contact that gets lost when mediated by technology, however good it may be in terms of image and sound quality.

On another walk, I noticed some other neighbors getting out of their car and unloading a huge amount of toilet paper. I had thought that the wave of panic buying should have ended by now but apparently not. According to Jonathan Pie, this inexplicable desire to amass huge quantities of toilet paper seems to be present in the UK too. He says that the devastating economic impact of the virus will aggravate class distinctions and economic inequality even more as the rich and many in the middle class can ride through the pandemic while those who cannot work from home and lose their jobs will be devastated.


  1. Some Old Programmer says

    Be prepared for grocery shopping to possibly take longer. I favor smaller stores (e.g. Trader Joe’s), which in the past week have limited the number of customers in the store. I queued for some amount of time while the staff allowed one person to enter for each to exit. Of course there are shortages as well, some more surprising than others. I’ve had trouble sourcing almost any type of fresh chicken, although one store had chicken wings--and only chicken wings--filling the entire fresh poultry display case. Flour is completely sold out. So is salt. Dried pasta was limited to two packages per customer, and now down to one package. But I’ve had no problems (so far) with fresh dairy. So I’ve had to be fairly adaptable as I’m shopping for a family of five (which includes teens).

  2. says

    I had to go buy some perishables yesterday, and I have to admit… I bought toilet paper even though I have enough. Shortly before the panic buying started, I bought two 12 packs for $4.99 (CAD) each because that’s just a good price. I haven’t even touched them yet, I have three rolls left in the pack I already had. Safeway got some in though and when I got there there were a few 30 roll packs of Purex left (limit 1 per customer), so I bought one. I’m not worried about the world supply running low, but I am worried about not knowing when the panic buying will stop.

    What I’ve got should last me a few months though, and if a neighbour comes knocking because they ran out, I can spare a roll or two.

  3. OverlappingMagisteria says

    If you’re planning to order groceries online, plan ahead. We did that and it was a week wait until they said it will be delivered. Our groceries should come tomorrow… we’ll see!

  4. says

    Where I live, mass panic shopping only lasted for a day. A few days later shop shelves were restocked, and the number of people in shops was a bit smaller than normally. I can only assume that people who used to buy a small amount of groceries every day switched to buying more food on fewer occasions.

  5. billseymour says

    The grocery store where I normally shop seems to have plenty of food, but the toilet paper and facial tissue shelves are mostly bare. That makes absolutely no sense to me.

    I was down to one spare box of tissues, but I was able today to get one package of three boxes, my normal purchase.

    I usually buy toilet paper in packages of 24 rolls, not for hoarding, but because the price per roll is a little better, and I don’t have to shop for it as often. There’s no urgency for replenishing my supply, so I’ll wait a while longer.

  6. says

    Remember that the check out clerks are the ones at most risk from getting infected and are under considerable stress and we owe it to them to minimize their risk and the article suggests some things we can do.

    In Germany, many shops recently have put up plexiglass walls around their points-of-sale, with openings just large enough for wares and access to POS terminals.

  7. billseymour says

    And remember to pay with a debit or credit card so the clerk doesn’t have to handle your cash.

  8. jrkrideau says

    I went shopping for the first time in two weeks yesterday afternoon. The store was rather quiet, quieter than normal[1], and seemed well stocked. I did not see any pears but there was lots of toilet paper (which I did not buy).

    People seemed to be keeping a 2m distance and were in no hurry. I think I saw one mask.

    1. The store is on the edge of the student ghetto and with the university physically closed 18--20K students probably have gone home. Duh.

  9. Doraemon says

    Toilet paper panic buying was already pervasive in Japan in 1973, triggered by the oil shock. It’s strange that this impulse seems to go across all cultures (those that use paper anyway). This year, it was the Japanese prime minister who gave the starting signal for the toilet paper race by ordering schools to be closed end of February.

  10. machintelligence says

    Here in Denver some grocery chains offer pickup and delivery service. I have used the pickup option (with a free trial — otherwise $ 5) and it works well. About 90 % of the items I ordered were in stock or a substitute was available. Time from order to scheduled pickup could be two or three days, but once you arrive at the store you call the pickup line and in a few minutes an employee rolls your order out, loads it into your vehicle, and hands you your receipt. There is almost no human contact. I believe delivery service is $11.

  11. Who Cares says

    Most panic buying has passed where I am, only thing I missed were some of my regular frozen vegetables. Still I try to get as much as I can to last me at least two weeks before heading back into a supermarket. Those are currently the most crowded public places around. Local supermarket requires (as per government order) everyone to use a cart, that way they can enforce some distance between people and by rationing the carts limit the number of people inside at one time. Some supermarket checkouts now have plexiglass sheets between you and the cash register and full barriers between lanes or only opening alternate lanes.
    Delivery services for the various supermarkets around have been booked for the next two weeks (which is the main reason I had to go out myself).

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