Business·MARKETPLACE

Supermarkets limit product quantities all the time. Why didn't they do so at start of pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen Canadians across the country stocking up on supplies in anticipation of weeks of social isolation. But companies' public assurances that their suppliers won't run out of product aren't doing much to make essential items consistently available.

Retail Council of Canada says stores decide their own policies

Some Canadians are encountering empty store shelves while others are walking away with quantities that far exceed what would be needed for self-isolation. (CBC News)

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen Canadians across the country stocking up on supplies in anticipation of weeks of social isolation. But companies' public assurances that their suppliers won't run out of product aren't doing much to make essential items consistently available.

Russ Stallberg, a 59-year-old paralegal from Toronto, said grocery stores should have been more proactive.

"They weren't limiting products," said Stallberg. "[Customers] were essentially going in there, taking whatever they wanted and leaving. 

"If everyone had been given the same level of whatever it was they were buying, we wouldn't have had that type of panic," he said. "I think that they should try to limit the items like they do during a sale," he said.

Stallberg said he saw people getting desperate on a recent trip to the grocery store.

"I saw a lot of scared people," said Stallberg. "I saw two fights, two scuffles. I broke one of them up."

Stallberg said he felt the store wasn't doing enough to control the panic.

"It was just leaving it to the customers to deal with it themselves."

Some stores imposing limits

While Canadians across the country try to stock up, some are met with empty shelves while others are walking away with quantities that would far exceed the virus's 14-day incubation period. 

Some grocery stores have implemented limits on essential items this week while others have not, and shelves in stores across Canada remain bare. 

Grocery stores 'profit from this type of panic,' says Russ Stallberg, 59, a paralegal in Toronto. (CBC News)

Stalberg said he was shopping when someone asked a clerk for "a skid" of a product, and the store clerk obliged. 

"The guy said, 'No problem. We'll help you with that.' And I thought, 'Why? Why would you do that?'"

On a near-daily basis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been urging Canadians to buy "only what you need."

Elizabeth Woodruff of Toronto took that advice and resisted panic buying, but now, she's left without essentials.

"I was one of those people that were like, 'OK, let's not panic,'" said Woodruff. "And now, I have no toilet paper in my house. We're on Kleenex."

'I was able to get the last set of soap ... but no hand sanitizer,' said Elizabeth Woodruff of Toronto. (CBC)

She says she feels some grocery stores weren't honest with their customers.

"They kept saying, 'Relax, we're going to restock.' I went into the grocery store last week, and it looks exactly the same this week as it did last week," she said. "Luckily, I was able to get the last set of soap ... but no hand sanitizer."

Stores profit from panic buying

In Taiwan, the government has taken multiple steps to ensure safety essentials make it to consumers, including putting weekly limits per citizen on safety mask purchases and rationing the amount of cleaning supplies consumers can buy.

Stallberg said he feels not enough is being done to ensure everyone has access to essentials and there's little motivation for stores to ration them.  

The Retail Council of Canada says the empty shelves are a result of distribution issues, not a lack of supply. It says its members have increased their deliveries and are starting to catch up. (CBC News)

"They profit from this type of panic," he said.

Some stores have put signs up saying they are limiting quantities of essential items per person. But Marketplace saw that in many stores, those signs were hanging over already empty shelves.

Rationing is a store-by-store decision

The Retail Council of Canada, an industry group that represents big chains like Lobaw, Sobeys and Walmart, says its priority is loosening government restrictions to get more product on the shelves so shoppers can buy the quantities they want.

The council said it doesn't plan to advocate for any rationing or limits per person.

"That's something that individual brands need to make store-by-store decisions based on," said Sebastian Prins, RCC's director of government relations in Ontario.

He says it's not the council's place to "meddle with our individual member's business."

Some stores have put signs up saying they are limiting quantities of essential items per person. But Marketplace saw that in many stores those signs hung over already empty shelves. (CBC News)

Prins told Marketplace that supply is not an issue. The challenge, he said, is getting the products from the distribution centres to stores at the rate of consumer demand.

Prins said his organization is lobbying governments to temporarily suspend bylaws that make it more difficult to get mass quantities of essentials from the warehouses onto store shelves.

In Toronto, for example, noise bylaws mean that deliveries from suppliers to stores can normally only happen between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. However, on Monday, the city lifted the bylaw so delivery is possible around the clock.

"That's going to go a long way to making sure we have products on our store shelves again," Prins said.

Thursday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the measure would be implemented across the province. 

It's up to individual stores whether they want to limit quantities of certain products, says Sebastian Prins, Retail Council of Canada's director of government relations in Ontario. (CBC)

Label laws eased 

Health Canada also announced on Thursday it will be making it easier for retailers across Canada to import safety essentials such as disinfectants and hand sanitizers by temporarily lifting labelling laws that would normally require products to have specific ID codes and be labelled in both French and English.

Prins says that the amount of time before consumers see the results of these government interventions will vary. 

"We've seen different sales figures for different products, so for some products like hand sanitizer, it may be longer than for products like canned goods."

He said stores are working on restocking their shelves, and sales are levelling out.

"A lot of retail members have assured me that they're starting to catch up," he said.

'Fear is contagious'

What is driving Canadians to panic shop? According to Steven Taylor, professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, it comes down to human psychology.

"Fear is contagious," he said. 

Especially as people are told to stock up on supplies by government and public health officials.

"Inevitably, someone out there is anxious and over-purchases," he said. "We see some people over-buying, and that leads people to worry that they've not purchased enough." 

Steven Taylor, professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says social media images circulating online can exacerbate panic shopping by creating 'a widespread fear of scarcity.' (Submitted)

Taylor wrote a book titled The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease that was published just weeks before COVID-19 was first discovered in Wuhan, China. 

"Virtually everything we're seeing in this pandemic has occurred in previous ones," he said. "The main difference is this is the first pandemic in which social media is involved." 

Widely circulated images of panic buying result in a widespread fear of scarcity, he said.

"So, people start rushing out and buying more and more things, and this thing snowballs on itself."

Taylor said that while it didn't seem to make sense at the time, there was a logic to even the early run on toilet paper.

"Toilet paper became a symbol of safety for people," he said.

Ultimately, panic buying gives shoppers a sense of control.

"They feel like they're actually doing something about the problem," he said.

Donate excess supplies

But our own behaviours actually can influence how the pandemic unfolds, says Taylor.

He said that although governments could step in and set limits on the purchasing of essential items, he thinks consumers should also reflect on their own behaviour.

"Think about other ways that you could help, for example, think about donating your excess supplies to the food banks, which are experiencing real shortages now because of the panic buying," he said. 

"It depends on all of us working together. We all have to agree to self-isolate or to shop sensibly and so forth."

While they wait for stores to restock, consumers are making do with what they've got. For Woodruff, that means swapping Kleenex for toilet paper and cooking without meat.

"I can go vegetarian for the time being and eat all the vegetables I need," she said. 

And like Canada's prime minister, she stressed the importance of sharing the responsibility.

"I have a mother in law, too ... she likes to stock up on everything, so she gave us a bunch of bars of soap," she said.

"People need to think about everybody, not just themselves, in a time like this."

COVID-19 pandemic has seen emergency essentials, such as hand sanitizer and soap, as well as everyday food items selling out as Canadians flock to stores engaging in panic buying. (CBC News)

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