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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grocers preparing for surge in demand as new statewide restrictions, busy holiday season approach

Nov. 17, 2020 Updated Tue., Nov. 17, 2020 at 9:29 a.m.

Toilet paper and paper towels are completely sold out at the northside Walmart near the Y  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Toilet paper and paper towels are completely sold out at the northside Walmart near the Y (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

With a second round of statewide restrictions going into effect this week – limiting restaurants to takeout service only and the number of people in stores during the busiest shopping season of the year – local grocers are gearing up.

When Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a statewide stay-home order in March, shoppers went into a panic-buying frenzy, rapidly snapping up nonperishable food and cleaning and paper products from grocery store shelves.

Grocers say this time they are better positioned to ensure store shelves remain stocked, and they are urging customers to refrain from hoarding supplies. Many grocery chains have implemented purchase limits on certain items, such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

“The first go-around hit us pretty quickly, and one lesson we’ve learned is to put limits on items right away,” said Jeff Philipps, president and CEO of Rosauers Supermarkets. He noted demand is brisk for rice, beans and paper and cleaning products.

If customers refrain from “panic buying” and purchase only what they need, there will not be an issue with the supply chain, he added. “Our food supply chain is still intact, and there’s no issues there if people plan for normal purchasing behaviors.”

Safeway and Albertsons stores have been building inventory since early March and are securing additional product based on consumer trends and needs, Sara Osborne, spokeswoman for Safeway, said in an email.

However, out of “an abundance of caution,” Safeway and Albertsons stores are limiting paper and cleaning products to two per customer transaction. Dish soap is limited to four per customer, she said.

“If customers maintain their normal shopping habits and avoid stockpiling beyond a week’s worth of food, the supply level in stores will remain stable and able to easily serve all in our communities,” Safeway said in a statement.

“As we have learned through the initial lockdowns, our stores will remain open, so there is no reason to stock pantries as if preparing for a natural disaster that would shut down businesses entirely.”

Fred Meyer has also temporarily implemented in-store and online purchase limits of two per item for paper towels, disinfecting wipes, hand soap and toilet paper, said Jeffery Temple, spokesman for Fred Meyer.

Yoke’s Fresh Markets did not respond to a request for comment on how it’s preparing for any increase in product demand.

Rosauers, Safeway and Albertsons have ramped up curbside and delivery options to meet a surge in business as the statewide retail indoor occupancy limit dropped to 25% on Monday. In the state’s prior stay-home order, grocery stores could not exceed 30% of their building occupancy as determined by fire code.

The additional reduction in occupancy has not yet posed a challenge for Rosauers Supermarkets as stores provide a “fair amount of space for customers to navigate,” Philipps said, adding the stores have a plan in place to meter people at entrances during evening peak hours if needed .

At Safeway and Albertsons locations, only one entrance will be open and staffed with an employee who will monitor the number of customers entering and exiting stores.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1439, a union representing grocery workers in Washington and North Idaho, will be sending letters to grocers asking how they plan to enforce the 25% occupancy requirement as overcrowding in stores is a concern for employees, said UFCW president Eric Renner.

UFCW will also be joining a national union effort to restore “hero pay,” a $2 hourly premium for employees who continue to work at grocery stores during the pandemic, Renner said.

The Washington Food Industry Association, which represents independent grocers and convenience stores in the state, urged shoppers to be patient as stores adjust to new state rules.

“Washington state’s independent grocery and convenience stores are working hard to safely meet the needs of customers during COVID-19,” Tammy Hetrick, president and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association, said in a statement. “Grocers do not make these regulations, but they are required to enforce them.

“Like you, we are adjusting to new and ever-changing rules about how to shop safely during this unprecedented time. Stores are doing their best to innovate and offer safe, convenient services and maintain reasonable access.”

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