The COVID-19 pandemic now gripping the world is affecting every facet of life.
The one that continues to get attention is the scene at supermarkets, where panic buying combined with supply chain issues has led to long lines, empty shelves and endless questions.
Kathleen A. Sautter, a spokeswoman for the Tops supermarket chain, agreed to answer questions about how the stores prepared for the disruptions which she said customers should expect to encounter for the next four to six weeks.
Question: How does this compare to the shopping patterns you see in the days before a widely expected blizzard or winter storm event?
Answer: While we certainly see an influx of shoppers prior to a winter storm here in the area, some of the high demand items today are varying from what is typically purchased prior to a storm. The awareness and media coverage around COVID-19 has significantly increased the demand for items like hand sanitizers, soaps, disinfectants, bath tissue, paper towels, baby wipes, cough/cold remedies and vitamins in addition to many nonperishable food items.
Q: Has Tops ever dealt with this level of customer demand, at least in the past 10 or 20 years?
A: The two times that come to mind are the October 2006 ice storm and more recently Snowvember in 2014. What's a little easier today vs. those two previous events is that our associates are not dealing with personal crises. During the ice storm, many were without power, unable to get to work, schools were closed and similar events in 2014. Today, we are fully staffed and working hard to keep our stores clean, open and stocked.
Q: How much were you prepared for, or caught off guard by, this level of customer demand?
A: We started preparing for the coronavirus event back in January when it first came to light. Our teams have been adding safety stock to our warehouses for weeks now. However, the high demand for these and other items continues to be a challenge. As a result, we have had to place purchase limitations on a handful of items. For a full list please visit the FAQ section in our newsroom.
Q: What are the challenges you face in getting replacement items onto shelves that have been cleared bare?
A: Because this is a national as well as international pandemic, all retailers are in the same predicament when it comes to finding product to meet the demand which means an increased demand on our vendors. Many manufacturers and suppliers of hand sanitizers, soaps and cleaners do not have much available product to ship at this time. We are working with all of the affected supplier partners on an hourly basis in an effort to refill our supply chain and our stores. All product we receive on a daily basis from these manufacturers is being shipped to our stores immediately.
Q: What changes are you making, such as increasing store staff or increasing your orders for certain product categories, to try to catch up to consumer demand? Please provide details.
A: Our supply chain and distribution teams have been working around the clock to ensure that the food, cleaning supplies, household essentials and pharmaceuticals that our customers need are reaching our stores as quickly as possible. The stores have been at full staff to ensure they are able to clean, restock shelves and serve our customers in the best way they can. In all our Tops stores, we have increased cleaning cycles especially in commonly used areas like cashier stations and self-checkouts, and increased the frequency of sanitizing and cleaning of food contact surfaces, pharmacy counters, restrooms, break rooms and other public areas.
Q: How long do you think it will take before supply catches up to demand in your store footprint?
A: Many of our manufacturers are telling us that it could be as long as four to six weeks. They are not only dealing with the increased production but also with the shortage of drivers to get the products to our warehouses.