Alaska shippers, store owners say ‘panic-buying’ isn’t necessary, but long lines and empty shelves persist

Hundreds of people stood in line to checkout in Costco on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

A lot of people have been posting photos of bare store shelves across Alaska. Toilet paper, rice and beans, hand sanitizer and baby wipes have been flying off of the shelves. 

But store owners statewide say that while the coronavirus-induced panic-buying is straining their supplies, they’re confident nothing is going to disrupt their shipments. Overbuying is unnecessary, but not everybody is listening.

Juneau’s Costco opens at 10:00 a.m. on weekdays. On Tuesday morning  — the day many people had been waiting for the store’s shelves to be restocked — by 10:45 a.m. hundreds of cars were packed into the parking lot. The line of people waiting to checkout line stretched from one end of the store to the other and curved around the aisles at the back of the store. 

But not everyone was in line to fill their carts — and homes — for weeks to come.  

“We thought it wasn’t going to be busy,” said Kris Cole. “We were wrong.”

Cole, and Dani Cherian, like most others in the store, had a bulk package of toilet paper in their cart and a few other things. But, it wasn’t full. Cherian said they were just buying a few things.

“We’re just picking up supplies for our church,” he said. They both belong to Valley Church. “We wanted to be able to help those who need toilet paper.”

But standing in line around them, there were people buying all sorts of things in preparation for being stuck in their homes. Some pushed multiple carts with toilet paper, canned and fresh food and generators in them.

Those long lines and empty shelves are it’s something Gov. Mike Dunleavy brought up during a press conference on Monday evening.

He addressed two groups of Alaskans: first, those who appear not to be concerned by the virus, who are still gathering in large groups. He said they should take it more seriously. 

“The other group of Alaskans I want to address are the folks that are very very concerned about this virus,” Dunleavy said. “So much so, that they are shopping and buying things to prepare themselves for two to three months without additional shopping. We’ve been told that our supply chains will be maintained, that there will be enough goods to purchase in our markets, in our stores. So, we don’t have to buy a large amount of items at one time.”

Alaska Marine Lines, or AML, is a transportation company that provides barge service twice a week to Southeast Alaska. 

No one from Alaska Marine Lines, or AML, was available to talk on Tuesday afternoon. But they did weigh in last week, when there was a similar rush in buying in Sitka.  A company representative told Sitka’s public radio station — KCAW — that things are business as usual and the company’s schedules are running normally.

Two of Alaska’s major maritime cargo companies, Matson Inc and TOTE Maritime told KTUU that they are confident the virus wouldn’t disrupt shipments.

Still, the run on supplies is putting a strain on local stores. 

“We do not have a food shortage. We do not have any product shortage. We just cannot get the product shipped up here fast enough,” said Super Bear store director Tony DeMelo.

He said people are panic-buying and he thinks it’s a cycle that will probably last for a few weeks. Because as people see fewer and fewer products on store shelves, they’ll be more and more likely to want stock up. 

DeMelo says if he could talk to each person that walked into the story he’d tell them, it’s ok to calm down.

“Just go back home and relax,” he said. “Your 14 packages of toilet paper, your 75 pounds of rice, your 40 pounds of orange juice — all of that will still be good a month from now.”

But, it’s tricky to keep up with the current spike in demand. Grocery store owners in town order on a lag.  For Super Bear, that means 10 – 12 days out. So, when they ordered their last shipment, they didn’t know there was going to be a frenzy of buying. 

DeMelo says, in response, stores try to bump up the volume of products in their current orders, but the distributors in the Lower 48 can’t keep up the pace, because the entire country is having this problem. 

Rick Wilson, who manages Juneau’s Foodland IGA, said that’s what’s different about this surge in buying. Because, there’s usually a rush at the grocery store when there’s a local disaster like a snowstorm or hurricane. But generally that’s not happening everywhere in the country at once, so distributors can rely on stockpiles from other areas to pick up the slack. 

“So they’re able to pull from areas that weren’t affected. We can’t do that. Everybody is affected,” Wilson said. “Every retailer, I mean, I’ve talked to other managers down in Washington and they’re just in worst shape than we are. So, you know, hopefully everything will settle down a little bit. Everybody’s got their pantries full now. And I’m sure we’ll be busy and I’m sure we’ll have some out-of-stocks. Everybody is going to be busy.”

Wilson, and other store managers, wanted it to be clear that they are receiving a steady stream of goods and it should be enough for regular shopping — but they won’t be able to keep up with the people panic-shopping all the toilet paper.

Aside from slimmer shelves and per-person limits on certain items, there may be other changes on the way for Juneau stores. Some stores are considering senior-only shopping hours. Safeway has already made the leap, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. the store has asked that only seniors and other at-risk members of the community — such as pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems — shop in the store. 

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