Panic food buying could lead to international crisis, UN economist says

The order by Gov. Mike DeWine for Ohioans to remain at home except for essential reasons added more fuel to a pattern playing out across the state of near-panic buying of groceries.

More than 80 million Americans in a handful of states have been put on stay-at-home orders and told to leave their homes only when absolutely necessary. Ohio’s order went into effect Monday evening, and grocery stores and other essential businesses will remain open.

A rush by many shoppers to purchase large quantities of items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizers, meat, milk and bread began roughly a week ago, after President Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency and DeWine ordered schools and some businesses to close.

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Jack Gridley, vice president of meat and seafood at Dayton-area Dorothy Lane Market stores, said he’s never seen anything like it in his 43 years in the grocery business.

“If everyone would just slow down a little, don’t panic, don’t hoard, there will be enough food for everyone,” Gridley said. “People have never experienced anything like this, and that’s probably why they are panicking. But as long as commerce keeps rolling and the trucks are on the roads, everything will be fine.”

Panic buying has the potential to disrupt the supply chain and drive up prices that may be passed on to consumers, said James Hill, an Ohio State University operations professor.

Consumers are panic food buying and hoarding for a variety of reasons, including fear, loss of control of their daily routines and, in some cases, paranoia, said Greta Winbush and Luke Tse, psychology professors at Central State University and Cedarville University, respectively.

“Even normal people can react in unusual or abnormal ways,” Tse said. “One of those is hoarding, which, from a psychological standpoint, is not a healthy exercise. But when we consider the mindset of people, they don’t usually think of themselves as hoarding, they’re thinking of themselves as being protective, or perhaps even overprotecting themselves in the event that things could even get worse.”

Potential for international food inflation

Panic food buying has overwhelmed area grocery stores, and they can’t seem to keep certain items, particularly toilet paper and hand sanitizers, in stock. The stores have gone from restocking their shelves perhaps twice a day to multiple times a day, depending on when new supplies come in, grocers said. Their employees have had to work extra hours, and they’ve adjusted their schedules to give the staff some relief. Most are looking to hire new employees to help with the demand.

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Stores have also adjusted their hours to allow time for sanitizing and restocking. Local Dorothy Lane Markets have designated certain hours for senior citizens to shop. They’ve also limited the number of items each person buys per visit to ensure there’s enough for other consumers.

But panic food buying have the potential to trigger a world food inflation, even though there’s not a food shortage, Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, told the New York Times.

“All you need is panic buying from big importers such as millers or governments to create a crisis,” he said.

Although the supply chain is set up to handle increases in orders, panic buying tends to drive up production, labor and logistics costs for manufacturers, who then pass that cost on to the distributors, Hill said. The distributors or retailers could subsequently pass that cost on to consumers, he said.

“If you think about it this way, the manufacturer only has so many days of supply, and the distributor only has so many days of supply in their warehouses,” Hill said. “So that’s being depleted at a faster rate, therefore, the manufacturer has to keep up to push that inventory downstream so that the retailer can have it on the shelf.”

Scott Rector is a lifelong Kettering resident who has been shopping at Dot’s Market for more than 50 years. On Thursday he dropped by to shop for a few items, as he’s had trouble finding what he needed, particularly at area chain stores.

“This is crazy, you can’t go out and buy anything anymore because there isn’t anything there,” said Rector, who had about five items in his cart. “They told me they’re going to get a truck in, but we’re going to have to bring in a fleet of trucks, because by the time they get a truck load it’s already gone.”

Plenty of food and supplies

Grocers in the past week have also said there’s plenty of food and supplies available, and they don’t anticipate a shortage. Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen was among several grocery executives who on March 15 asked President Trump to inform the country that there’s plenty of food in the supply chain, according to media reports.

Erin Rolfes, spokesperson for Kroger’s Dayton-Cincinnati division, echoed McMullen’s sentiments. Grocers are not holding on to the items, and fresh shipments are coming in daily, she said.

“We’re not in the business of storing products, we’re in the business of selling it, so as trucks are coming in from our suppliers, they’re going right back out to the stores,” Rolfes said. “Our supplier pipeline is really strong … we’re not seeing issues with getting supplies, (even though) folks are buying a lot more than they usually would.”

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Kroger and DLM are among area stores that have put limits on such items as toilet paper, cleaning products, milk, eggs and bread, although that list is evolving. Comfort foods have also been in high demand, Gridley said.

The limits were imposed not because there’s a shortage on those items. Instead, grocers want to ensure there’s enough for all consumers, including senior citizens and others who aren’t able to get around easily.

“If you think about it, a lot of our customers who might be using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits or who are low income, they’re not able to stock up in the same way that some of us might be able to, so we want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to get that fresh, good food,” Rolfes said.

Fear of the unknown

People panic buy for multiple reasons, including fear of the unknown, concern about life changes, mixed messages from government officials and concern about their family’s well-being, Winbush and Tse said.

Scientists are still learning about the COVID-19 coronavirus, a vaccine has not been developed and the infection rate and death tolls are rising daily.

As of Monday afternoon, there were more than 370,000 coronavirus cases worldwide, and nearly 17,000 deaths. Ohio reported 442 confirmed cases and six deaths as of 3 p.m. Monday.

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Another contributing factor for panic food buying is the fact that people have lost some control of their lives. Schools have been closed, many people are required to work from home, everyone is being advised to keep six feet or more from each other in public and nearly all public events have been canceled. But the one thing they can still control is the ability to drive to the store and buy as much groceries as they want, Winbush said.

In addition, whenever there are so many unknowns during a crisis, people succumb to social pressures, she said. If others are overbuying or if they see empty shelves, people feel pressured to stock up, she said.

“You assume that somebody else knows something that you don’t when you go into the stores and everybody’s hoarding,” Winbush said. “(One thinks other shoppers) know that the government’s going to shut down the whole caboodle, and ‘I need to go get my toilet paper, I need to go get my paper towels.’ I think of herds of cattle; if there’s nobody directing them, then they just go with the flow.”

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In addition, people take matters into their own hands, and that can lead to overreaction when there’s not a consistent flow of accurate information or clear directions from government leaders, Tse said.

They think, “‘Regardless of what the government is telling us, I’m going to do what I feel is necessary to safeguard my family to ensure that we are OK’,” he said.

Still, during this time of crisis, he urged people to ensure they and their families remain healthy and be sensible, and take a balanced approach.

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