Some store shelves quickly empty but experts say it’s short term

At a Costco near the Mall of Georgia on Friday morning, about 800 people lined up outside before the store opened. Within seven minutes, the store’s entire supply of toilet paper—six pallets’ worth—were gone. Soon, the paper towels, disinfecting wipes and Lysol also ran out.

“I’ve worked at Costco for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” one worker said.

It's a scene repeated in varying degrees across the Atlanta area as consumers respond to the coronavirus outbreak by stockpiling paper products, hand sanitizer, bottled water, frozen food and other necessities. Many Georgians fear being stuck at home for weeks without supplies as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases steadily rises.

But it’s an unfounded fear that store shelves aren’t being replenished, said Greg White, an Atlanta-based supply-chain expert, adding the grocery distribution system in the U.S. is highly sophisticated and will quickly recover.

“Consumers, at this point, don’t need to worry about long-term stores being out of stock,” said White, a partner at Trefoil Advisory. “The U.S. supply chain is resilient enough to replenish rapidly.”

Some products may appear in “fits and starts,” reappearing on store shelves for a couple of days before going out of stock again, he said. “It’s anywhere from one week to four weeks until we get back to normalcy again.”

The grocery chains serving metro Atlanta said Friday that demand was unexpectedly fierce, intensified by school closures. Stores ran out of paper goods, sanitary items and health products.

Consumers shouldn’t be faulted for panicking since they’ve been given little guidance about what to expect, said Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

“We can’t tell people that this is going to be terrible and then tell them to do nothing,” he said.

Retailers acknowledge that the sudden rush emptied some stores of some products, but insist that the scarcity is only on the shelves – not farther up the supply chain in company warehouses or among thousands of suppliers.

Companies just need some time to catch up, said Felix Turner, corporate affairs manager for Kroger in Georgia, but he declined to give a date. “We are working hard to replenish shelves as quickly as possible.”

To slow the depletion of many items, Publix set a quota, said Maria Brous, director of communications for Publix. Among the commodities limited to two-per-purchase are soaps, sanitizers, tissues, bleach and disinfectant wipes. But the surge has been inconsistent and delivery schedules mean some stores are resupplied before others, she said. “As you might imagine, inventory varies from store to store and delivery to delivery.”

Some retailers and individuals have taken advantage of the situation by overcharging for high-demand products. The Georgia Attorney General’s office has received about a dozen complaints of price gouging and is investigating, said spokeswoman Katie Byrd.

The Department of Homeland Security recommends people have a two-week supply of water and food if there’s a pandemic, although others have suggested consumers build three-month stockpiles of food and supplies.

Three months is far more than the typical Georgian needs, said Trefoil’s White. “China and Italy were completely ill-prepared yet people there have still been able to get goods,” he said of two countries that were hard hit earlier by COVID-19.

Suppliers to school cafeterias and restaurants are having the opposite problem — they are sitting on unsold inventory as schools are closed and people don’t go out to eat. Royal Food Service in Atlanta can sell some of its excess supply to supermarkets that are low on specific items, said Adam Fleming, chief operating officer.

At the Publix along Chamblee-Dunwoody Road in Dunwoody on Friday morning, the lines were normal.

But almost all the cow’s milk was sold out, and there didn’t appear to be any ground beef or fresh chicken on the shelves. Cleaning supplies were picked over and shelves of toilet paper were empty.

But shippers had their pick of the St. Patrick’s Day favorite, corned beef, which was in stock. The store had plenty of cereal, but bananas and strawberries appeared to be sold out along with many other types of produce.

Lindsay Medwed of Dunwoody said she came to the store Friday morning to stock up on frozen items and snacks that won’t spoil. The cleaning supplies she wanted were gone. She said she was surprised to see so many empty areas in the produce section. “It’s picked over,” Medwed said. “It’s scary.”

Medwed did find a mix to bake a cake for her daughter’s birthday next week. “Small victories,” she said.

Amy Ruda of Sandy Springs also was in search of snacks and other foods that won’t spoil quickly. She said after seeing dystopian photos of barren shelves Thursday night, she was surprised to find as many items as she did. Like many parents, Ruda said her kids’ school is closed for the foreseeable future. That set off a scramble for parents to stock up on food for days their kids normally would be fed at school.

“We have to make it not scary for our kids,” Ruda said.

At the Costco near the Mall of Georgia in the Buford area, rice was in short supply Friday morning and customers were limited to two cases of water per Costco membership. Within an hour there were hundreds of people standing in checkout lines that snaked to the back of the cavernous store. Then workers pulled down the entrance door, concerned they might begin to have too many people in the building. They let in people in groups of 100, as enough shoppers left.

People inside appeared to be mostly civil, but they accidentally bumped carts, ran over each others’ heels, and became confused by twisting lines, including ones that curled back to run in what looked like the wrong direction.

“This is the line to checkout,” one helpful shopper said to another. “What?” the woman replied. “I just want water, man.” She walked away.

A Costco worker said she had worked at stores in Florida during hurricanes. Even then, she said, “it was never this bad.”

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.