Shopping for flour in Rutland last weekend felt like searching for bigfoot — there were several signs that maybe it had once been in the area, but the real thing never seemed to turn up.
Staple foods proved hard to find as panic-buying in response to the COVID-19 pandemic continued, emptying shelves around the area. Social media had been inundated for some time with photos of empty toilet-paper aisles. Almost as bare were sections of supermarkets holding pasta, rice, beans and flour. Meat and frozen vegetables were available, but with a much-reduced supply and variety.
As the week began, there didn’t appear to be a speck of flour for sale in the city.
Kamuda’s Country Market in Pittsford, on the other hand, had what appeared to be a full supply on Monday of King Arthur flour and canned goods as well as a smaller — but better than in Rutland — supply of pasta. The sections for toilet paper and paper towels, though, was as empty as anywhere in the city. A clerk told a customer that he wouldn’t have found the flour, either, if he’d come in the previous day.
At Tenney Brook Market in Rutland, not only wasn’t there any flour, but the bread was almost completely gone. Three packages of hamburger rolls and two of hot dog buns sat on an otherwise empty set of shelves limiting customers to one bread item each.
Such signs are commonplace in area stores. They appeared over the empty Tylenol shelves at Walgreen’s — though Advil, subject to an internet hoax claiming it would worsen coronavirus, was in plentiful supply — the flour section at Tops and cleaning supplies at Wal-Mart.
No sign appeared in a different section of Wal-Mart that had been decimated. Empty shelves pointed to a run on home workout equipment, particularly dumbbells.
All this was week after the first wave of panic buying started — seemingly enough time for stores to restock. A Hannaford employee told a customer during the weekend that staple foods were going out as quick as they came in.
How much pasta should an area store go through on a weekly basis normally?
Nobody seemed to have that data this week. Even if they did, it might provide some context but wouldn’t help fill the shelves, according to Vermont Retail & Grocers Association President Erin Sigrist, because the current circumstances are anything but normal.
“Retailers don’t have the numbers, based on this situation, that direct them how much they should be ordering,” she said. “If we don’t know how much the demand is going to be ... we don’t know how much we’re going to order.”
Sigrist said that the demand has worked its way up the supply chain and farmers are ramping up production, but it takes time for that to show on store shelves. In a perfect world, she said, that would take about two weeks.
“The system needs to reset,” she said. “In order for that to happen, consumers need to reset. I am hopeful things will calm down within the next week, but we’re in uncertain times. People need to take care of themselves and their families, but they also need to take care of their communities.”
Representatives of large grocery chains similarly lacked any detailed data about the supply chain, but offered assurances that shelves would be restocked.
“I can confirm the food supply is not in jeopardy,” said Mona Golub, vice president of public relations for Price Chopper. “We’re not getting 100% of what we’re ordering. Pasta’s being restocked daily. Beans and vegetables are being restocked daily. ... People are definitely reverting to comfort foods and cooking at home, with restaurants closed and school lunches not going on. Baking has surged — that’s why you’re seeing flour disappearing.”
When the shelves return to relative normality, Golub said, will depend on what happens with the spread of the virus.
Similarly, Tops spokeswoman Kathleen Sautter said trucks were continuously shipping to stores as often as they could.
“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,” Sautter wrote in an email. “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 re-fill our supply chain and our stores. All product we receive on a daily basis from these manufacturers is being shipped to our stores immediately.”
Tops lifted its limit on milk purchases this week, but the store maintained a long list of restricted items. This included baby formula and wipes, large packs of chicken, cereal, breads and rolls, eggs, flour, bottled water, ground beef, frozen vegetables, laundry detergent, dish detergent and — still — toilet paper.
“I think the best thing for all of us is to step back and get back to purchasing the way we normally do,” Sigrist said.
At least one positive sign appeared on Friday — Wallgreen’s had hand sanitizer on the shelves again, with a limit of two per customer.