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Business and Economy

'I've Never Seen It So Empty' — Maine Grocers Overwhelmed By Hoarding Shoppers

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public
Shelves lay empty Sunday at the Hannaford supermarket in Portland.

Bare grocery store shelves are becoming an increasingly common sight as shoppers rush to buy extra supplies to prepare for the coronavirus outbreak. But retailers say there’s plenty of food in the supply chain and urge consumers to curb their purchase habits to ensure everyone can get what they need.

At Food City in Lisbon, manager Jerry Favreau says panicked shoppers first arrived last Wednesday to grab extra staples like pasta, canned goods and toilet paper, and that uptick in business is holding steady. He says his store was initially able to keep up with the increased demand, but now its supply warehouse is running a day behind.

“So that means we have to go another day with just what we have on our shelves, which won’t be a whole lot,” he says.

Favreau says it’s slim pickings for some items, including pasta and cereal. And there’s not a trace of toilet paper.

“It looks like when we have a big nor’easter forecast. If you look at that and then double it, that’s kind of the impact,” he says.

It’s a similar scene at Bow Street Market in Freeport, says assistant store manager Charles Beardsley.

“I’ve never seen it so empty. I mean we’re at the point now where toilet paper and paper towels are just completely gone, so they’re buying napkins and whatever else they can get their hands on that’s paper based and can be flushed,” he says.

Beardsley says Bow Street has had to place purchase limits on paper goods, and that has now spilled over to certain food items.

“Specifically we’re seeing a pretty high influx with buying chicken. So we had to unfortunately limit some of the poundages that people are able to buy,” he says.

Grocers like Beardsley and Favreau have a message for customers: ease up. Shop as you normally would, especially if you’ve already stocked up.

“Have faith that the supply chain will be there. All of these warehouses and all the manufacturers are doing the best they can. They can’t just turn a light switch on and have the product here,” Favreau says.

Kristen Miale president of Good Shepherd Food Bank, which receives food from grocery stores such as Hannaford, says it’s important for shoppers to recognize that there’s more behind what’s on store shelves.

“There is no need for people to hoard food, she says. “They’re almost creating a problem by hoarding food, because there’s plenty of food in our supply chain unless people start hoarding it. And then we’ll have a problem.”

Large grocery store chains are echoing that message. In a statement, Hannaford says the food supply chain is healthy. But the challenge is getting product delivered to store shelves at a speed that matches the current unprecedented demand.

Shaw’s sent a letter to customers last Friday urging shoppers to respect quantity limits on high-demand items to ensure everyone can get what they need.

Despite low supplies, Favreau says he has witnessed customers looking out for each other.

“There was one gentleman that was talking about not having any toilet paper. And a young lady walked up and said, ‘Sir, I have some out in the car I can give to you,’” he says.

And Food City is also taking steps to help those who need it most as the coronavirus moves through Maine. It’s offering special early morning hours for customers over age 60 on certain days of the week.

“In this town especially it’s a much older population, in Lisbon. And we can see the fear on their faces sometimes and the nervousness about coming in and being in this big environment,” he says.

The goal, he says, is to allow for social distancing, and provide a more calm, safe, setting for seniors.

Maine Public's Caitlin Troutman contributed reporting to this story.

Originally published March 17, 2020 at 5:29 p.m. ET.