At a Safeway in Washington, D.C., this week, 19-year-old Tala Jordan was having trouble checking items off her shopping list.
Fresh meat: Nope. Milk: Nope. Eggs?
"I got liquid eggs instead," she said. "Had to compromise somehow."
Jordan was shopping for a family of four — her sister, mom and grandmother. And like families across America, they saw others making a rush to buy goods and figured they should stock up as well.
Nielsen reported spikes in sales of medical supplies and nonperishable food earlier this month. And it predicted more pandemic-driven shopping as federal, state and local governments urge people to stay at home to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
Retailers assure shoppers they will stay open. Grocery stores provide a critical service to communities, and even in pandemic-struck Italy, where the entire country is under lockdown, grocery stores and pharmacies kept operating.
But shortages of some high-demand items may continue for a while.
UNFI, one of the largest food distributors in the United States, says some warehouses are running at 200% to 500% their average capacity at this time of year. It's like the weekend before Thanksgiving — day after day after day.
Chris Testa, UNFI's president and chief marketing officer, says that in some cases, the suppliers just can't keep up. "There's only so many gallons of milk that can be produced, only so many eggs that can be produced," he says.
Even when supply exists, there can still be shortages.
Adnan Durrani has warehouses full of product. His company, Saffron Road Foods, which makes frozen entrees, predicted this spike in demand.
Still, it takes time for a distributor to pack a truck and send it to a store. "If they fill that store's backroom inventory, that may not be enough because that may sell out in one day or less," Durrani says. "And they're used to having inventories that last a week or two."
That can mean empty shelves, at least temporarily. But retailers and producers can meet this challenge, he says, because America has strong supply chains.
And at least for now, American food producers are not experiencing production troubles. The barren shelves are simply a reflection of the unusual increase in demand.
Testa says his company is working to recruit out-of-work warehouse workers and truckers from industries hit hard by the coronavirus to help meet the urgent need at distribution centers.
While shortages persist, retail trade groups are urging people not to buy more items than they would use in a couple of weeks — to give others a chance to meet their basic needs.
In addition, grocery shopping can mean braving crowds, exactly what everyone is supposed to avoid in order to fight this pandemic. Experts recommend attempting to shop at less-popular times of day. Some grocery stores also highlight their delivery options, while noting those services are barraged by orders and may experience delays.
Many stores are reducing their opening hours to allow more time to restock and clean, and a few have special hours when they're open just for seniors, who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Americans are trying to stock up on food and supplies as the coronavirus crisis sets in, but demand has grown so fast that grocery stores are struggling to keep their shelves stocked. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: At a Safeway in Washington, D.C., 19-year-old Tala Jordan was having trouble checking off her shopping list.
TALA JORDAN: Most of the fresh meats are gone. The milk's gone. The eggs are gone, so I got liquid eggs instead - had to compromise somehow.
DOMONOSKE: She's buying for a family of four - her sister, mom and grandmother.
JORDAN: We have stocked up, but we wanted to stock up some more because we were like, oh, well, everybody else is doing it. We might as well do it as well.
DOMONOSKE: The same calculation is happening across America. Nielsen reported spikes in sales of medical supplies and food as more governments are urging people to stay at home. Jordan reckons they've got enough food to last them four weeks, but she's worried by the scene at the grocery store.
JORDAN: It's - kind of makes me uncomfortable because it's like everybody's buying everything, so everything's going to have to shut down eventually because soon, we're not going to have anything left.
DOMONOSKE: Retailers say that is not going to happen. The grocery stores will stay open. They provide a critical service to communities. Even in pandemic-struck Italy, where the entire country is under lockdown, the grocery stores have stayed open. But shortages of some high-demand items may continue for a while. The system just can't keep up with this big of a spike in purchases. UNFI, one of the country's largest food distributors, says some warehouses are running at 2- to 500% percent capacity. President and chief marketing officer Chris Testa says, in some cases, the suppliers just can't keep up.
CHRIS TESTA: There's only so many gallons of milk that can be produced. There's only so many eggs that can be produced.
DOMONOSKE: And even when supply exists, there can still be shortages. Adnan Durrani is the CEO of Saffron Foods, which makes frozen entrees. He's got warehouses full of product because his company predicted this might happen. But it takes time for a distributor to pack a truck and send it to a store. And then...
ADNAN DURRANI: If they fill that store's back room inventory, that may not be enough because that may sell out one day or less. And they're used to having inventories that last a week or two.
DOMONOSKE: But retailers and producers can meet this challenge, he says.
DURRANI: But the reality is that in America, we're very blessed. I mean, we have very strong supply chains.
DOMONOSKE: In the meantime, to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, some retailers are highlighting their delivery options while noting those services are barraged by orders and may experience delays. Many stores are reducing their operating hours to allow more time to restock and clean. Some have special hours just for seniors who are vulnerable to the coronavirus, and limited supplies have created some tense situations. Brandon Sterling works security at a Harris Teeter in Washington, D.C.
BRANDON STERLING: Customers are coming in and literally causing scenes that put us in a situation where we would have to escort them off the premises because they're upset that the stores don't have all the products.
DOMONOSKE: Sterling says those were sad moments because he understood why those people were so upset. He asked people to think of others.
STERLING: Do you really need 18 24-packs of toilet paper while your neighbor has none, with a family of six, you know? If we all just do what we can in order to look out for each other - and it just starts from house to house, person to person, neighbor to neighbor.
DOMONOSKE: Retail trade groups are urging people not to hoard more items than they would use in a couple of weeks to help others have a chance to meet their basic needs.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.