Why Grocery Stores Are Going Empty

You have likely already seen videos of hysteric customers flocking to grocery stores, filling their carts with as much toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and non-perishable foods as they possibly can. The mass-buying began directly after companies across America started encouraging employees to work from home, followed by state-wide lockdowns, and even a nationwide State of Emergency.

We are in the midst of a modern pandemic. Numerous experts, official organizations, and media channels have released a wealth of information about what measures should be taken to prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Currently, the majority of people are stockpiling goods and retreating into their homes to self-quarantine. However, the widespread panic-buying has taken a heavy toll on America’s grocery stores, and revealed a troubling problem with America’s food distribution system. 

empty bread shelf grocery store
Grocery stores across the nation have been unable to keep up with the surge in demand due to the novel coronavirus.

Why Did the Panic Buying Begin?

Local governments began declaring a state of emergency as early as February 29th. One grocery store employee in Seattle described their experience in an interview with Vox, stating that this announcement is what triggered the panic buying – as quickly as flipping a switch.

“It was when Governor Inslee declared a state of emergency [for the state of Washington]. We were just swamped. They were all over the place. They cleared the shelves. And this isn’t a small store. We’ve got three levels, and it’s practically a full city block. They cleared out the non-perishables, toilet paper was gone, anything that had to do with antiseptic sprays or wipes was gone. They went to the Clorox, never mind the hand sanitizer. We hadn’t ordered in anticipation of this, so we ran out. Ever since that Saturday they have been there every single day, buying everything. We put hand sanitizer on the shelf and it’s gone in 20 minutes.”

The panic-buying spread like wildfire. Consumers around the world suddenly began stockpiling goods like hand sanitizer, canned foods and toilet paper – even when authorities assured the public there was no need to do so.

In an article by CNBC, several experts dive into the psychology behind this urge to stock up in times like these. According to Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at Cambridge University, the behavior comes from a phenomenon called “fear contagion.”

“When people are stressed their reason is hampered, so they look at what other people are doing. If others are stockpiling it leads you to engage in the same behavior,” he said. “People see photos of empty shelves and regardless of whether it’s rational it sends a signal to them that it’s the thing to do.”

And with officials from California to North Carolina and dozens of states in between beginning to order or recommend that restaurants halt dine-in service or restrict capacity, the pressure on supermarkets will likely only continue to increase.

empty shelves grocery store
“Fear contagion” is the phenomenon that explains why millions of people rush to stockpile goods in times of crisis.

Struggling Grocery Stores

On paper, this might seem like a good opportunity for grocery stores, but there can be such a thing as too much business. Supermarkets across the country are coming to this realization as the sudden surge in grocery demand is forcing them to modify their policies.

Major grocery chains such as Walmart, Stater Bros. and several Kroger subsidiaries are shortening their hours of operation to allow extra time for their employees to properly clean and restock the stores. However, simply adding more sanitizer to bathrooms and closing early is not solving the underlying issue.

This panic buying wouldn’t be a problem if the stores could keep up with demand. Unfortunately, because of the way America’s food distribution system is set up, grocery stores rely on a set number of shipments. Industry experts say there’s little risk of out-and-out food shortages across the country — right now the issue is one of distribution, as it struggles to keep up with the spike in demand.

A reporter from the LA Times recently sat down with Bob Reeves, vice president for the West at the Shelby Report, a research firm that tracks the grocery industry. Reeves describes how the cornovirus crisis has affected the grocery supply chain nationwide. The major chains usually get shipments overnight, or perhaps twice a day, to restock essentials such as paper towels, toilet paper and water. However, “manufacturers in some cases are having trouble keeping up, and that’s where the void is, they’re not able to keep up with demand,” he said. “We’re seeing shipments coming into the stores sometimes without any of those products, and it will be like that until people calm down a little bit,” he said. When that will be, is yet to be determined. Until then, suppliers and distributors will have to do their best to step up.

store shipment forklift
Once a product is out of stock, grocers have to wait until the next shipment.

Many businesses are taking unprecedented measures to keep up with demand during this time. In some cases, chains are sending their delivery trucks directly to manufacturers — bypassing warehouses and distributors — to get the items to the stores faster, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the retail consultant Strategic Resource Group. The Consumer Brands Assn., the industry group representing most major packaged goods companies in the U.S., is asking lawmakers to raise the number of hours that truck drivers are allowed to drive from 11 to 13 to deal with increased demand, and is also pushing for expedited approval processes for consumer goods at ports and stricter enforcement of anti-price gouging laws. 

Produce sections are being hit especially hard. In times of crisis and natural disasters, it is common to see milk, eggs, bread, and canned goods sell out, but during pandemics, when millions of people are much more conscious of their health, fruits and vegetables and other fresh, nutritious foods are the first to go.

While items such as ramen and soup have a long shelf life, making them ideal to set aside in case of emergency, Dr. Laura Yudys told NBC Chicago that residents should try to keep eating fresh food in an effort to keep their overall health up. “Think of your root vegetables, especially things like carrots, potatoes and even turnips and parsnips,” she said. “You also want hardier produce vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, and I recommend to load up on oranges and apples.”

Unfortunately, these health foods also go bad quickly, which is why people stock up on even more of them during times like these. 

empty produce section
Produce sections in stores across the nation have been stripped completely bare.

The AgriFacture Solution 

An efficient food distribution system doesn’t have to seem so utopian. It is possible for food to be produced locally, distributed quickly, and in great supply that could withstand events that cause a sharp increase in demand such as natural disasters and pandemics. If local restaurants, food delivery services, and grocery stores got their produce shipments from local indoor farming facilities, then our grocery store shelves wouldn’t continue to be empty day after day like they are now. 

At AgriFacture, we have made it our mission to replace traditional food production and distribution methods with a unique controlled environmental agriculture (CEA) system that combines high-tech robotics with precise automation. Our system design is able to produce a variety of the purest fruits, vegetables, and legumes in a way that no one else has before. 

Our Closed-Loop Environmentally Controlled Ecosystem resists virus, bacterium, microorganisms, airborne, and human borne contamination. It shields products from external risk factors brought on by Mother Nature, such as natural diseases, harsh weather, and natural disasters, as well as internal man-made environmental contamination. Controlled agricultural production that is fully automated also removes human workers from the equation. In a time like this where workers are forced to self-isolate or go onto quarantine to prevent the spread of infection, farms that do not rely on humans for harvest are essential to providing a constant supply of food. 

While other farms have closed, we have kept producing. Our Better Shrooms are being shipped to local restaurants and Co-Ops even now, so local people can still have access to the fresh, nutritious food that they deserve. External factors such as weather, natural disasters, or even global pandemics do not affect the clean, controlled systems inside of indoor farming facilities.

We believe that the global food production and distribution should be able to meet demand, even in times like these. There should not be empty shelves in grocery stores. There should not be human workers driving longer hours than usual in order to make shipments arrive on time. 

Food production and distribution should be reliable, abundant, and efficient – year-round – not just in times of crises. 

That is the future that us at AgriFacture are working towards. 

full produce section grocery store
Even in times of an outbreak, people should have access to the fresh produce they need.