Are hurricane-hardened Florida grocers better prepared for coronavirus rush?

Panic buying forces some stores around to limit purchases of toilet paper and masks

Rows of hand sanitizer are seen empty at a Walgreens in Idaho Falls, Idaho, as fear of the coronavirus has people stocking up on hand sanitizer.
Rows of hand sanitizer are seen empty at a Walgreens in Idaho Falls, Idaho, as fear of the coronavirus has people stocking up on hand sanitizer. (Post Register no sales no mags)

Rationing supplies. Overwhelmed delivery workers. Toilet paper protected by security guards. This is the new reality around the world as some retailers are taking drastic action to limit the number of face masks, hand sanitizer bottles and toilet paper rolls that each person can buy as customers stockpile goods over fears of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The epidemic has infected more than 101,000 people and killed 3,400 globally, leading to growing concern and bulk buying of supplies around the world.

Australian supermarket chains Woolworths and Coles both began limiting toilet paper purchases to four packs per person this week. Costco Australia is also restricting how much toilet tissue, hand sanitizer, milk, eggs and rice each customer can buy.

“It’s crazy,” one customer muttered after spotting empty shelves at the store.

In the United States, Kroger says it is capping individual purchases of "sanitization, cold and flu-related products," while Home Depot is curbing the number of face masks in single orders placed online and in stores.

Nielsen Retail Measurement Services, which researches consumer trends, told Supermarket News that hoarding of emergency supplies began in China, spread to Italy and now appears to have arrived here. Its data show sales of medical masks in U.S. outlets went up 179% and hand sanitizer 54% in the last full week of February. Milk sales tripled and self-stable groceries went up about 10% in that same week.

Are Florida-based chains like Winn-Dixie and Publix better prepared than other grocers to handle the surge?

Anthony Hucker, CEO of Southeastern Grocers, which runs Winn-Dixie and other grocery chains in five states, told CNBC on Thursday that the company’s experience dealing with hurricanes have prepared it for surges like the one happening now.

“Unfortunately, we live in the footprint where there’s a lot of natural disasters. The supply chain is very, very robust, and we’re well-practiced in the muscle of disaster relief,” Hucker told the network.

Hucker said his company has seen an increase in business, mirroring shopping trends across the United States.

“We’re used to watching the algorithms, and when products are pulled at a faster rate, we can change those fields from our computer-generated ordering system to make sure that we’re serving our customers," Hucker said. “As we stand today, we’re fully in stock."

A Publix spokeswoman told the Miami Herald that just because shelves are starting to empty doesn’t mean stock has run out.

“We are helping our communities prepare by replenishing the stock of essential products such as Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, bleach, water, canned goods and paper products,” spokeswoman Maria Brous told the newspaper. “We continue to make daily deliveries to our stores and are collaborating with our supplier community, industry groups and community partners.”

— CNN’s Hilary Whiteman, Hanna Ziady, Eoin McSweeney and Emma Reynolds contributed to this report.

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