Time to stock up again? The likelihood of empty shelves in a second coronavirus wave

Click to play video: 'From toilet paper to electric guitars: what Canadians have been buying during the pandemic'
From toilet paper to electric guitars: what Canadians have been buying during the pandemic
The retail industry is seeing some changes in sales now that Canadians are spending more time at home or in the great outdoors due to COVID-19 restrictions. Matthew Conrod takes a look at what people are buying during the pandemic. – Sep 16, 2020

The great toilet paper shortage of March 2020 is now a distant memory. But could empty shelves at supermarkets, pharmacies and corner stores make a comeback in the event of a second novel coronavirus crisis in Canada?

The answer is complex, experts say.

READ MORE: A second coronavirus lockdown in Canada? Experts discuss the likelihood

The good news is Canada’s supply chains held up remarkably well during the spring lockdown, says Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada.

“Re-shelving was a challenge,” he says. But that’s a simple matter of restocking stores quickly enough.

Actual instances of inadequate supply, where factories just can’t keep up with demand, were rare, he adds.

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Besides, since the start of the pandemic, producers of in-demand items have ramped up their output, while retailers have diversified their suppliers, he notes.

Food manufacturers have learned a lot in the past few months, says Av Maharaj, chief administrative officer at Kraft Heinz Canada.

“At the beginning of the year, everyone had a shortage of personal protective equipment, PPE,” he says. “That actually slowed things down.”

Now, he says, supply-chain managers have crisis-management protocols in place, and companies know what to do in a pandemic.

READ MORE: Canadian businesses are worried about getting PPE — so where can they get it?

“People know what they need to clean, how often they need to clean, how people need to be spaced, how the cafeteria needs to be run, whether people can carpool to work,” says Maharaj.

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It also helps that product shortages during the lockdown were short-lived, Littler says. Consumers quickly realized the country was not actually running out of, say, toilet paper.

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“In the event of a second wave, we do believe there are certain key products that Canadians that will stock up on, but we do not expect panic buying to be as significant,” Sobeys told Global News via email.

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The grocery giant said it believes “the increase in buying behaviour will continue to be high in parts of the country that are the most impacted by COVID.” The company, however, added it is “confident” will continue to be able to serve its customers, including through its own online grocery home delivery service, which launched during the pandemic.

Metro declined to comment for the story, while a spokesperson with Loblaw said it hasn’t seen any changes or shortages over the past few weeks.

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Still, the empty-shelf problem isn’t gone, says Laurie Tannous, special advisor at the University of Windsor’s Cross Border Institute and vice-president of government relations at Farrow, a customs broker and trade compliance firm.

“Temporary shortages are to be expected despite the fact that supply chains have been and continue to be working in overdrive,” Tannous said via email. “We are still seeing some of the same trends we did at the outset of the pandemic.”

For one, renewed supply shortages of PPE and sanitizing products could reverberate through a variety of supply chains as manufacturers struggle to secure things like masks and cleaning products for their factories, according to Tannous.

READ MORE: Feds keep lid on some PPE contract company names, prices

And in general, Tannous says, even as supply chains have learned to be more nimble and adaptable, “the unpredictability of COVID-19” makes logistics and inventory planning tricky.

As Littler puts it, “it takes you 10 minutes to restock a shelf, and one minute for somebody to sweep it all into the cart.”

Shoppers stocking up in the event of a lockdown could cause issues, whether or not a second lockdown actually happens.

Concern about certain products being in short supply could become a self-fulfilling prophecy somewhat like a run on the banks, Littler says.

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What are we likely to run out of?

Few people would have guessed shoppers would have run for things like toilet paper, eggs and yeast during a pandemic, Tannous says. And consumer behaviour remains hard to predict during COVID-19, she adds.

Still, one product that’s likely to continue to be in short supply is dry yeast, she notes.

“Many beer manufacturers require yeast as well as due to the increase of baking both commercially and residentially dry yeast remains in demand and retail shortages may continue,” according to Tannous.

At Kraft Heinz, peanut butter, tomato sauce and Kraft Dinner have seen “huge spikes in demand” and continue to be very popular, Maharaj says.

READ MORE: Coronavirus cases could exceed Canada’s health care capacity this fall, officials warn

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Even with restaurant dining now back on the menu, Canadians are still spending around 20 per cent more on groceries than they used to pre-pandemic, says RBC economist Colin Guldimann.

And while Canadians had been increasingly buying fresh products at the supermarket, with COVID-19 they’ve been veering more toward shelf-stable items, according to Maharaj.

What to expect during holidays

Holidays and celebrations like Thanksgiving, Halloween and Christmas will be another riddle for shoppers, retailers and manufacturers.

For the worries about trick-or-treating during a pandemic, for example, people have so far been spending “unprecedented amounts” on Halloween candy and decorations, Maharaj says.

How much Canadians will be spending overall for the holidays season will likely depend on how the pandemic evolves as well as conditions in the labour market, Guldimann says.

But factors like limits on how many customers can be in a store at once will have an impact on shopping events like Black Friday, Littler notes.

Canadians might want to plan in advance for their holiday errands, he says.

“We’re certainly encouraging people to make sure that they don’t leave anything until the last minute.”


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