The coronavirus pandemic has caused toilet paper shortages and long lines, but panic buying is not a new phenomenon and it certainly isn’t helping.
As the coronavirus locks down more of the country, shelf after shelf of Lysol sprays and Clorox wipes has been picked clean by shoppers preparing for the possibility that they could be quarantined for weeks or months.
Store limits on disinfecting wipes and sprays haven’t slowed the fear-fueled run as households stock up on cleaning products to protect against infection. Neither have eye-popping prices online and off.
In March, sales of aerosol disinfectants jumped 343% and multipurpose cleaners 166% from a year ago, according to research firm Nielsen. And still, people are scouring the internet’s vast virtual shelves and local stores for more.
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How could something so basic suddenly be so hard to get?
Manufacturers like Clorox were not prepared for skyrocketing demand in a sleepy sector with reliably steady sales that usually only fluctuate during flu season. And, with global supply chains snarled by the coronavirus, they now can’t produce enough inventory to meet that demand, supply chain experts say.
Clorox 4-in-1 Disinfecting Spray and Lysol Disinfectant Spray are among the products that the Environmental Protection Agency says likely protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
“Nobody ever expected this to happen, and they got caught flatfooted,” says Patrick Penfield, professor of supply chain practice at Syracuse University. “They don’t have enough ingredients. They don’t have enough capacity.”
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With panic buying and stockpiling wiping out cleaning supplies, especially in COVID-19 hot zones, predictably consistent sales of Lysol and Clorox are no longer predictable or consistent, says Bryan Ashenbaum, professor of supply chain and operations management at Miami University in Ohio. “Suddenly,” says Ashenbaum, “Lysol is trendy.”
Clorox, Lysol production in overdrive
Disinfectant products manufacturers say they are rushing to churn out as much as they can as quickly as they can.
Clorox, which sells disinfecting wipes, bleach, bathroom and multipurpose cleaners, is “making as many products as possible,” Linda Rendle, who runs the company’s cleaning business, said in a video distributed by Clorox.
Reckitt Benckiser Group, maker of Lysol, says it’s experiencing “unprecedented and accelerated demand” for Lysol disinfectant products. “This demand is clearly having an impact on our retailers’ inventory levels,” the company said in a statement to USA TODAY. Its CEO, Laxman Narasimhan, told the Wall Street Journal this week, Reckitt Benckiser is narrowing its product lineup so it can crank out disinfectant cleaners faster.
Mandy Ciccarella, spokeswoman for P&G Home Care, says the shortage of Microban 24 is a “temporary situation” and the company is “working diligently to ensure we can continue to serve our consumers and meet demand in the middle of a highly dynamic situation.”
But, say supply chain experts, there is only so much capacity disinfectant makers can or are willing to add for fear of creating a glut when panic buying subsides.
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When will you be able to buy Lysol, Clorox again?
So if you are out of Lysol wipes and Clorox spray, are you out of luck? Not at all, says Tom Derry, CEO of the Institute for Supply Management. But you won’t be able to easily buy them again until summer.
“It’s not like we can just turn on capacity in this country and all of the sudden, if there is a 40% demand spike, produce at that level,” Derry says.
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The pandemic struck as companies were thriving during America’s longest economic expansion on record and were already manufacturing nearly as much as they could.
Since the outbreak, factories have jumped into overdrive, adding overtime and shifts and hunting down alternative facilities to produce more disinfectants, but the coronavirus is complicating these emergency measures.
Shifts have to be staggered and barriers installed to shield workers from infection. From loading docks to the highways, freight is tougher to move.
By mid-May, supply chains should return to normal and by June, out-of-stock disinfectants should begin reappearing on store shelves, Derry predicts. But intermittent shortages could persist for months, such as in the fall when people are expected to return to work and children to school.
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So how did we get into this mess anyway?
Disinfectant products depend on a complex global supply chain, much of it centered in China.
Each year, manufacturers plan for China’s nationwide hiatus during the Lunar New Year holiday. What they didn’t anticipate this year? The coronavirus outbreak, which idled factories and the flow of goods in the industrial hub of Wuhan as airlines grounded flights and ships hit snags trying to move goods between ports.
These bottlenecks delayed shipments of raw chemical ingredients needed to produce disinfectants for weeks, supply chain experts say. By the time China started to come back online, shortages of disinfectant sprays and cleaners were being reported around the globe.
The other reason disinfectants are out of stock
Why were U.S. inventories so limited in the first place? A massive wave of cost-cutting by U.S. manufacturers over the past few decades, says Burt Flickinger III, managing director of retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group.
Working capital slashed. Plants consolidated and closed. Warehouses and distribution centers shuttered. And manufacturers moved to a “just in time” system to manage inventory which, by using sophisticated models to forecast demand, made it possible to produce, ship and stock as few goods as possible.
This hyperefficient approach may have saved corporations billions but it also made the country extremely vulnerable during a pandemic, Flickinger says.
“If there’s a hurricane, flood, tornado or blizzard, these companies can flex and get supply back in a week,” Flickinger says. “In a pandemic, they can’t, with catastrophic consequences for consumers.”
Is it possible to find Lysol and Clorox?
You probably won’t find high-demand products like Lysol or Clorox at your corner store or your local drugstore anytime soon.
Your best bet is to shop warehouse stores such as Costco and Sam’s club, major retailers such as Walmart and large grocers such as Ralph’s, Vons, Albertsons, Publix Super Markets and Winco Foods, which have their own warehouses and can pick up products from factories and ferry them in their own trucks directly to stores.
Consumers should also try Lowe’s home improvement stores which restock emergency supplies every night, Flickinger recommends. Another strategy: Aim for stores in remote or rural areas or in tourist destinations, he says.
Don’t hoard disinfectant cleaners
Even when shelves bulge again with disinfectant products, Derry urges Americans not to hoard them.
“When you do that, you exacerbate problems for all of your neighbors and friends and it makes it harder for you down the road to find it,” Derry said. “If everyone buys what they normally use, or if you are using a little bit more enough for that extra bit of use, then there’s enough. It’s only when your neighbor goes and buys 40 cases of Lysol that we begin to have a problem.”
“It’s not Armageddon. We are going to get through this,” he continued. “People are going to get sick and it’s going to be a horrible situation. But it’s not like we are talking about nuclear fallout or something. This is a different kind of situation altogether.”
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