Nova Scotia

How big grocers in Canada are preparing for COVID-19

While none of the major grocers in Canada say they plan to ration certain items, a food supply expert said he wouldn't be surprised to see the practice emerge as concerns over COVID-19 increase.

Pandemic changes the psyche of customers, says food supply expert Sylvain Charlebois

Toilet paper has been a popular item at grocery stores since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada. This photo was taken at a Sobeys grocery store in Halifax on March 12, 2020. (Richard Woodbury/CBC)

Grocery stores across Canada are preparing for customers stockpiling supplies to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the country, customers have been heading to stores in droves to pick up items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and non-perishable items.

In Canada, some local stores have had to ration items like hand sanitizer because of COVID-19 concerns. Outside Canada, some stores have turned to rationing items amid coronavirus panic buying.

"The practice, if done at the right time, will be seen as a responsible one," said Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Long lines and full carts inside a Calgary grocery store on Friday. (Shannon Scott/CBC)

"People will understand because we've seen a lot of reports of erratic behaviour, people just not being able to explain what they were doing as they were buying toilet paper.

"We do go through cycles of public education. People will go out and buy things and then all of a sudden they realize, 'Well, maybe I should have left a few for others.'"

What big grocers are saying

In an email to CBC News, Walmart Canada said it will continue to keep its stores stocked with items its customers are looking for, like hand sanitizer, paper products, cleaning supplies and non-perishables.

Walmart said it also plans to keep prices of those items "fair."

The company said any of its employees who are not feeling well can stay home. It also initiated a policy that provides additional financial support for "associates that are under 'mandated quarantine' or are a confirmed case of COVID-19."

Walmart said associates unable to work remotely will be placed on paid leave and will be eligible to receive pay for scheduled work hours during a two-week period.

CBC News contacted Loblaw, the company behind grocery stores like Superstore and No Frills, for comment on Thursday, but did not receive a response.

However, an email sent to customers of its grocery pickup service, PC Express, goes over some of the steps it is taking. It said due to increased demand, there may be limits on certain products, such as toilet paper. Given reduced product availability, there may also be more substitutions with grocery orders.

On Friday evening, Loblaw customers received an email from Galen Weston Jr., the company's executive chairman, outlining increased sanitization practices in high-touch areas like checkouts, cooler doors and pharmacy counters three times a day.

Costco did not answer questions regarding rationing and customer stockpiling, but a spokesperson for the company acknowledged there has been a surge of interest in purchasing emergency supplies in response to COVID-19.

Sobeys did not respond for a request for comment on Thursday.

Charlebois said he wouldn't be surprised if chain stores began implementing rationing.

But he said the supply chains of those stores are "quite resilient."

"They've learned from past mistakes, they've become smarter, they have more options," he said.

Dalhousie University professor Sylvain Charlebois says event cancellations and news of celebrities coming down with COVID-19 could help fuel panic buying. (Radio-Canada)

In the case of a pandemic, Charlebois said the consumer psyche changes from being panicky to being more civil and responsible.

"Every market will go through a cycle. I would say right now, out west in Alberta and B.C., because they've had their first death and there have been several cases there, they actually did go through a cycle of panic buying," he said.

For Quebec and Atlantic Canada, Charlebois anticipates the panic buying hasn't started yet. He estimates the brunt of this will happen in two to four weeks, after March Break is over.

He said event cancellations and news of celebrities coming down with COVID-19 could also fuel panic buying.

'Make sure everyone is taken care of'

Charlebois said he encourages people to be reasonable in the quantities they buy. He said COVID-19 is a virus that could last a long time.

"Not only will this allow people to make sure everyone is taken care of in a community, but it will also give the entire supply chain a chance to recover and adapt," he said.


Anjuli Patil


Anjuli Patil is a reporter and occasional video journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team.