Shoppers hoping to stock up on hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes are running out of options as more coronavirus cases continue to surge.
Many stores including Target, Walmart, Kroger and Publix are restricting shoppers by placing limits on how many of these COVID-19-related items that shoppers can buy with signs citing “high demand” or “increased demand.”
Target confirmed to USA TODAY that it began limiting purchases over the weekend, limiting customers to six disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizers and hand and face wipes per person. Publix set a limit of two of each of the sanitizers, along with masks, rubbing alcohol, bleach, facial tissue, and cups, plates and utensils.
Walmart said in a statement that store managers have been authorized to “manage their inventory, including the discretion to limit sales quantities on items that are in unusually high demand.” The limits can vary by location.
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Limits could have halted price gouging
Experts say the rationing and limits should have started earlier and could have prevented price gouging and hoarding.
Kelly Goldsmith, an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, has studied consumer behaviors around scarcity and how consumers behave. This panic shopping “is way worse than Black Friday because nobody’s going to die if they don’t get that flat screen on discount from Walmart,” she said.
Goldsmith, who was a contestant on the reality show “Survivor” in 2001, said her fear is there will be violent outbreaks with fights over supplies. Law enforcement has already responded to calls from frustrated shoppers including one March 5 at a California Costco, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Last week, Costco said it was struggling to keep some products on shelves, such as bottled water and other goods, due to the panic caused by the virus.
“I think rationing is great. I wish people had started sooner and talking more about it because I think it would create a lot of comfort among consumers if they didn’t have to worry that their Doomsday prepper neighbor down the street taking all the Purell and the toilet paper,” Goldsmith said.
From empty shelves to ‘panic buying’
Tinglong Dai, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School, said when consumers see empty shelves, it leads them into a “vicious cycle of panic buying,” which he said rationing can help break.
“For those high-demand products, rationing provides something that price changes cannot achieve – it helps maintain a reasonable level of product availability,” Dai said. “When consumers value product availability, assurance of product availability reduces the pressure of panic buying.”
Empty shelves have customers flocking to online shopping hoping to get the household products delivered to their homes.
Chieh Huang, CEO of Boxed.com, said the length of the buying surge has been surprising to the e-commerce shopping club and different from shorter “weather-related stock-up surges.”
“We’re seeing a lot of first-time buyers coming online, and in the coming weeks, I suspect we’ll see them stay online given the ease of placing an order,” Huang told USA TODAY.
Online shopping experienced an 817% jump in February compared with the previous month, according to Adobe Analytics.
More than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the U.S., according to John Hopkins University. The U.S. death toll rose to 31, while the worldwide total exceeded 4,300.
There are also benefits for retailers to ration. It makes them look “proactive, responsive and empathetic,” Goldsmith said.
“I think consumers really appreciate that I think it would camp down a lot of consumer concerns,” Goldsmith said. “I just wish they had done it sooner but it’s never too late.”
Follow Kelly Tyko @kellytyko and Coral Murphy on Twitter @CoralMerfi