Grocery stores scramble keep shelves stocked

Shelves in Safeway’s baking aisle were nearly empty on Monday.

As officials continue to warn about the imminent arrival of the novel coronavirus in Kodiak, residents have flocked to the local grocery stores to prepare. Safeway and Walmart reported empty shelves, and some of the busiest days on record.

According to Safeway Store Manager Mike Murray, the amount of sales on Friday was equivalent to two normal days worth of sales. And last week, measured between March 8 and March 14, was the busiest week this year, surpassing the first week of June, which usually brings more people to the island. 

“Normally we would celebrate this success, but we’re not happy about this,” Murray said. “We have to put our store back together and we need the tools — a healthy staff and consistent orders. I can’t control all of that.”

The Kodiak Safeway, like thousands of other grocery stores across the country, is running low on hand sanitizer, cleaning solutions, paper products, cleaning supplies, bleach, bottled water, rice, beans, meat, canned vegetables and eggs. While some items are expected back in stock in the near future, Murray said it is difficult to keep up with the demand for some products, like toilet paper. The store has limited the purchase of some of these products to five or fewer items per shopper. 

A Matson freighter delivers groceries to Kodiak twice a week, with shipments typically arriving on Mondays and Wednesdays. Murray said that while the store is still receiving its usual twice-per-week shipments, the list of “ordered items not shipped” is growing. This is because Kodiak is not the only community hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and the Seattle warehouses that typically send these items are running low. 

The extensive list of items in short supply is due to the effects of the coronavirus threat “reverberating through the supply chain,” Murray said. This week, he is flying pork in from Seattle to replenish the store’s depleted meat department.

The store’s “in-stock condition,” or the variety of items available, is the worst he’s ever seen as a retailer, Murray said. 

“Because of the depletion in the supply chain, ordering restrictions are being put in place so no one retailer can gobble everything up,” Murray said, explaining why the store is unable to stockpile products to meet the growing demand. “As those categories become more populated, the ordering restrictions will be lifted.” 

While some shelves remain empty, Murray advised shoppers to follow the item limits for products in short supply. 

“If they come back in stock, it’s important that they go to as many households as possible,” he said. 

He also advised shoppers to avoid “panic shopping” and exercise good personal hygiene while shopping, by limiting the number of surfaces they touch and making use of the hand sanitizers that have been placed throughout the store. 

Employees have been instructed to increase the cleaning frequency inside the store. For some surfaces, this means they will be cleaned once an hour. “But the clerks can’t clean and sanitize everything,” Murray said. 

Some community members have suggested the store offer a delivery service for older and high-risk residents, for whom a trip to the grocery store may pose added risk. But Murray said the store doesn’t have enough manpower to offer that kind of service at this time. Rather, he suggested that friends and family members come together to help Kodiak’s vulnerable population with groceries. 

“I can’t make a commitment to a service that I might not be able to fulfill. If a person gets ill, that’s going to put a strain on the workforce,” he said, adding that the staff is emphasizing routine cleaning as a measure to stay healthy.

Safeway has also decided to close the common eating area at the front of the store to lessen the number of people in the store. They also closed the popular hot wing bar, which was exposed to passersby. Instead, the items will be available for take-out from behind a serving counter. 

“We’re trying to do everything we can to keep our customers safe and our employees safe,” Murray said. 

Walmart store manager Jason Jardine said the store is still receiving regular shipments, but demand for certain items has skyrocketed. Like Safeway, the store has implemented limits on the number of items a single customer can purchase. 

“There is still a steady flow of goods,” Jardine said. “We’re working to try to get more coming to the stores whenever we can.” 

Joe Dinnocenzo, a retired Alaska Department Fish and Game employee, said he is not changing his shopping habits, and not stockpiling items.

If the grocery store is out, “We are just going without,” he said. “I think that’s nuts and that’s what’s causing disruption and I just don’t want to contribute.”

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