Shelves being emptied at local businesses

Friday, March 13, 2020

While some restaurant parking lots in Northeast Arkansas appear less crowded amid the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, stores within the region are grappling with customers emptying their shelves of a growing number of products.

Toilet paper, bottled water, sanitizer, disinfectants and many cold and flu products are rapidly disappearing from local stores' shelves, along with lower-priced food items being hoarded for potential long-term storage at homes throughout NEA.

And anything with a label that reads "anti-bacterial?" No chance on Friday.

As a result, a growing number of local stores late this week started placing signs by those products, limiting the number of items purchased by each customer.

A handful of department and grocery stores in Jonesboro began limiting purchases of some products, including paper products, water and anti-bacterial cleaning products.

At the Walmart in Trumann, a sign posted on an empty paper product shelf announced changes in amount of purchases allowed.

"In order to serve all of our customers, we have placed limits on the following items..." the printed note read, adding that customers were limited to four packages of toilet paper, small packs of paper towels, packages of bottled water and "all anti-bacterial products."

The note also indicated customers were allowed just two large packs of paper towels and two containers of bleach.

At many stores, customers waited for workers to return from back areas with carts of products to stock, snatching the products before they could be stacked neatly on shelves.

At the corporate level, Walmart announced on its web site efforts to maintain supplies of products.

"We are working to replenish those items quickly, including diverting products to areas of the country where they are needed most and routing deliveries directly to stores," a note to customers read Friday. "We have also authorized our store managers to manage their inventory, including the discretion to limit sales quantities on items that are in unusually high demand."

In addition to Walmart, products at Kroger and Dollar General stores throughout Jonesboro were quickly purchased this week, while Aldi had a run on canned goods.

Many restaurant chains have announced increased effort to provide sanitary space for customers, while many encourage online ordering or deliveries. Most have also announced changes in policy to take care of employees who miss work due to virus-related illnesses.

IHOP, McDonald's, Red Lobster and Fazolis were among the chain restaurants that e-mailed customers to reassure safety at their locations nationwide. Best Buy offered to reschedule home deliveries and consultations for customers worried about the outbreak.

Harbor Freight, meanwhile, announced it will shutter stores that are affected by the coronavirus.

"If we become aware of any condition in any store that would make it unsafe, rest assured that we'll close the store until those conditions have been addressed," a message from the hardware store stated.

Pharmacies also have taken steps to curb spread of COVID-19. Some have started limiting purchases to their drive-through windows, while others have taken steps internally to combat spread of the virus.

Brent Panneck, owner of St. Francis Pharmacy in Lake City, said he has been asked by some customers concerned about shortages of their prescriptions.

"We haven't been notified there will be shortages," he said, adding that shortage of commodities being purchased en masse at department stores "seems to be the common thread."

Panneck said his store will offer to allow customers to purchase their prescriptions without having to pick up a pen on the counter and sign an insurance form used to log all transactions throughout a day.

The pharmacist also said his employees will clean the store more vigoirously and keep sanitizer on hand, while adhering to "good hygiene and flu prevention we follow every year."

Panneck, in his 14th year at St. Francis, said he hasn't noticed an increase or decrease in customers buying other products his pharmacy carries, "just more conversational things."

"I've talked to at least a half dozen people today," he said. "All of them were concerned about the overreaction. I'd say the reaction is greater than the issues are at the moment."