Paper or plastic in the era of COVID-19

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Image by Matthias Böckel from Pixabay
By Glenn Townes
Glenn.townes@njurbannews.com

Racks of empty grocery store shelves, replete with dust instead of product, have become a frequent sight in recent weeks, as the world continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic and New Jerseyans and others fear if and when the local supermarket will run out of food and other essentials.

Supermarkets—including mega grocers, including Shop Rite and Wegmans---to smaller chains like Trader Joes' and McCaffrey's Markets, are struggling to cope with surging demands from panic stricken shoppers—hell-bent on buying every roll of toilet paper, paper towel and hand sanitizer available. Add to the mix a noticeable dearth of first time and combat weary front line workers in a global health pandemic--the grocery store has become a respite, of sorts, to the recently unemployed and the new concept of  'home-confined' buying.

“Despite the social distancing and government warning to stay home, Americans are still shopping for their groceries in store, and if they can't easily find what they need, they are willing to pay more,” said Lucia Juliano, head of retail research at Harris Interactive, a Connecticut based firm that, among other things, tracks consumer trends and markets. The company recently released the results of a survey that showed nearly three quarters—70 percent of Americans are still visiting retail stores—including supermarkets to purchase groceries rather than shopping online.  According to the survey, the most in-demand products include frozen food, cleaning products and paper products—especially toilet paper. Juliano added,  “This could explain why many stores and online retailers are experiencing shortages.” When asked how the COVID-19 lock down and stay at home measures impacted their shopping, about 60 percent of consumers reported they have gone without products or services, and about half said they paid more for something than they normally would.

The pandemic has required grocers to increase the daily restocking of shelves--while implementing government mandated directives of social distancing, crowd control, installing plexiglass at registers, extensive cleaning and sanitizing and providing masks and gloves to employees and some customers. The additional resources and immediacy can present challenges to smaller and independent supermarkets. “We have been able to keep up with most of the demand for products and adhering to the government mandated regulations,” said Anthony Sanfilippo, store manager at McCaffrey's Market in Princeton, NJ. The upscale and Pennsylvania-based grocer has two New Jersey locations. Sanfilippo added the store has been purchasing food from restaurant suppliers. “A local restaurant has provided lunch to our employees for the past several weeks as a thank you for working on the front lines throughout the crisis.”

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