MENIFEE, Calif.—Because of concern about the spread of the CCP virus, shoppers have stripped grocery store shelves of basic food staples and disinfectant as California food retailers struggle to keep pace with the sudden, sharp spike in demand.
The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mishandling allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.
The list of scarce items that began with toilet paper and bottled water, now includes hand sanitizer, bleach, anti-bacterial soaps, meat, eggs, milk, bread, spaghetti, pasta sauce, and some canned foods.
Still grocery store chain executives at Ralphs and Stater Bros. are reassuring customers they don’t need to hoard food. They say the problem is not supply, but rather the sudden demand that has caused a bottleneck in distribution.
Ralphs Director of Corporate Affairs John Votava said the company is urging shoppers to take what they need, but to leave some behind for their neighbors.
“There is no food shortage,” Votava told The Epoch Times. “Our transportation and logistics are working to get caught up with the demand that’s taking place in the stores. The thing is, we get the orders into the stores, our stores stock up the shelves, and the product disappears almost instantaneously just because of the panic buying or overbuying.”
“We are getting regular deliveries. Actually, we have stepped it up a little bit to where we have a little over 400 loads that are leaving our distribution centers every day to cover 320 Ralphs and Food 4 Less locations. So some locations may be getting double loads each day,” he said.
“I was at our distribution center today in Paramount,” Votava said on March 16. “The warehouse is stocked, and we’re working feverishly to get product out to the stores. It’s just disappearing as quickly as we can get it on the shelves.”
In Los Angeles on March 16, Mayor Eric Garcetti attended the Ralphs warehouse in Paramount for a Facebook live event.
“There is no reason to make a run on the supermarkets,” Garcetti said. “Supply chains are completely uninterrupted, and there’s no shortage of food. … Hoarding is hurting our community, so please don’t do that.”
Calm Is Key
Stater Bros. CEO Pete Van Helden told The Epoch Times that unwarranted fears of a food shortage have created an artificially high demand, and the best remedy is for shoppers to calm down.
“We haven’t been able to handle the surge that’s been created by panic-buying and hoarding. That’s what’s causing the problem. We just hope everyone can relax a little bit and get back to normal shopping habits, and that will help all of us recover much sooner,” Van Helden said.
“We won’t have a supply problem. We’ll get all the products back in … but as long as people are hoarding and surge-buying, it’s very hard for the supply chain to handle that upswing.”
“Most suppliers are doing pretty well,” but not so when it comes to toilet paper and water suppliers, he said.
“They are not keeping up—not even close,” Van Helden said. “Manufacturers have geared up, and they’re running 24/7 to get caught up.”
Van Helden said that California’s state-mandated occupancy restrictions on restaurants, along with bar and winery closures, could add tremendous strain on grocery stores.
“I’m really concerned about the restaurant situation. That’s where people get half their calories today. If I can’t go to a restaurant, what is my option? I go to the grocery store. That’s a big shift. All that consumption then moves to us and we’re already over capacity,” he said.
“We’re really in a very fragile situation here. We just can’t take much more stress, so we have to be very careful about shutting down food supply, or it could cause a panic we haven’t even seen yet.”
Cool Heads Prevail
So far, there haven’t been any reports of fights or looting in any Stater Bros. locations, said Van Helden, adding that stores will remain open as long as an air of civility continues.
“We’ve had no breakouts, no fights. I’ve had no concerns about safety yet. But if the panic gets much higher, that’s what worries me. As a CEO, I have to think of those things, and all I can tell you is we’re only going to have stores open as long as they are safe, and they are at the moment,” he said.
For the most part, customers have taken things in stride. “They’ve been terrific. They’ve been very understanding and patient with us,” said Van Helden, who also gave kudos to the Stater Bros. staff for their hard work.
“We have a lot of great employees who are happy to help out and work long days,” he said. “They still have smiles on their faces, and I think that helps the customer relax as well.”
Toilet Paper Predicament
When asked why toilet paper, in particular, is in such short supply, Votava said the warehouses are well supplied, but local stores can’t keep up with the extraordinary demand.
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Votava said. “I don’t know, honestly. It’s beyond me. I can tell you firsthand that in the distribution center I was in today, I saw pallets of that stuff. So, we have it, and once we get it to the stores, it goes on the shelves and, poof! It’s gone. That’s the situation that we’re up against. It’s panic buying.”
The toilet paper problem is widespread throughout the country and beyond.
“When a shipment of toilet paper comes in, it’s a bit of a frenzy, but everybody has been pretty patient. We do have limits [per customer] on paper and water and things like that. People have been really good about accepting the limits,” Van Helden said.
Besides regulating the amount of toilet paper customers can buy, Ralphs has limited purchases to two items per customer for products such as milk, eggs, bread, beef, poultry, and pork.
“We urge people to take what they need and to leave some behind for their neighbor,” he said.
Employee Overtime and Hiring
Many Ralphs employees have been working overtime, but Votava said the company is doing its best to maintain regular work schedules and still keep up with the increased demands.
“We are in the process of trying to hire another 200 to 250 associates to join our team and give us some extra hands to help stock the shelves,” he said. “These are immediate positions that we can get people into pretty quickly.”
Stater Bros. is also hiring temporary workers, said Van Helden. But, in the meantime, employees are working a lot of overtime hours.
“We have no choice. We’re a very manual business,” he said. “The product moves through the system largely through manual process, so all of this increased demand just increases the number of hours. So yeah, we’ve got employees who are working long days and seven days.
“I want to be clear we’re not forcing anyone to work. We’re all proud of our team because they’re all volunteering and they’re chipping in. We’ve got the whole executive staff out working in stores.”
Reduced Store Hours
Both Ralphs and Stater Bros. have reduced store hours to allow more time for cleaning, sanitizing, and restocking.
Ralphs locations are now open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. compared to the previous stores hours of 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. at most stores, Votava said.
Stater Bros. new store hours are 8 a.m. till 9 p.m. every day at all 169 stores. Before the shopping surge, hours were 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Feeding The Hungry
On Monday, Kroger Co., Ralphs’s parent company, said it will commit $3 million for hunger-relief to communities disproportionately affected by the CCP virus outbreak.
“Our most urgent mission is to be here for our customers when they need us most, and our store, warehouse, distribution, food production and office associates are working around the clock to keep our stores open for our customers,” said Keith Dailey, Kroger’s group vice president of corporate affairs, in a media release.
“We’re also mindful that the coronavirus pandemic may result in more of our neighbors struggling with food insecurity during this challenging time—and we want to help.”
Kroger’s Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation’s donation will be equally distributed between the its nonprofit partners, Feeding America and No Kid Hungry. The money will support local food banks nationwide and fund initiatives that ensure children, whose schools may be closed, still have access to nutritious meals.
Stater Bros. Charities, a sister company, also donates generously to food banks and organizations, Van Helden said.
“We’ve been focused on taking care of our customers, but on an ongoing basis we do give millions of dollars to food organizations,” he said.
Sanitary Safety Precautions
To protect workers and customers, both grocery store chains say they are abiding by Center for Disease Control regulations.
“What we are doing is putting hand sanitizers at all the check stands and we are providing [employees] with anti-bacterial wipes, too, to wipe down their keyboards, conveyor belts, and then sanitizing the self-checkout location touchscreens and pin pads at the registers as well,” Votava said.
“Those are the measures we’re taking for our associates to keep their workspace clean, but also for our customers.”
Paid Sick Time
“If an associate is feeling ill, we obviously do not want them to come to work, and we just announced yesterday that we are extending our paid sick leave as well,” Votava said. “So that will give our associates two weeks of paid time off.”
When asked what will happen when people feel they are stocked up enough and the demand bubble either bursts or gradually subsides, Votava said it’s anybody’s guess.
“I’ve never been through anything like this before, so to be honest, I don’t have an answer for that one,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of a wait-and-see game I would think.”