Empty freezers. Cleaned out shelves. Aisles totally empty, as if it were a going out of business sale. The chicken thighs, the frozen broccoli, the toilet paper are all feared missing.
It’s slim pickings these days at supermarkets and convenience stores across the region as people are jamming into aisles to stock up on food, household goods, and cleaning supplies amid rising concerns they’ll be forced to self-quarantine for an extended period of time. As cases of the coronavirus continue to spread, industry experts promise that the virus won’t lead to a break in the food supply chain -- but it was clear in busy groceries Friday that many shoppers would rather be safe than sorry.
“Is this it? The end?” Donna Knowles asked without irony as she became the 26th person in a line that stretched from the cashier deep into the bakery section at the Market Basket in Gloucester early Friday afternoon.
"I just came in to grab a few things, hoping to make a few dinners before I go to work,'' she said, sizing up the line. "I don’t think that’s going to happen.''
"The only way you’re getting any water is if you go down to the ocean and boil it,'' Mike Francis called out to another customer in a different corner of the store as he stocked chips in the snack aisle.
"It’s worse than a blizzard, it’s worse than pre-Thanksgiving,'' Francis, a distributor for Utz snacks, told a reporter. "I’ve never seen anything like this. And it’s like this in every store.”
Throughout the region on Friday, shoppers posted images on social media of stores from Dedham to Hingham decimated of an array of food items as shoppers descended on local grocery stores to stock up. Customers queued up in lines of shopping carts outside BJ’s in Stoneham. Lines wrapped around the building in the Newton Whole Foods.
At Tropical Foods in Nubian Square, it was all hands on deck.
Owner Ronn Garry said on Friday that his employees have been working extended hours and on their days off to accommodate the influx of shoppers. He said the store’s sales have been up over 50 percent this week and the average purchase is nearly $50 — up from an average of $23 this week last year.
Garry said he is concerned about burnout and availability from his staff in the coming weeks.
“I give them a lot of credit for stepping up at a difficult time,” he said."They hear the message to stay home, stay home, don’t go to work, but you can’t work remotely here. There is a big responsibility — it is sort of like running toward the fire."
At the moment, Tropical Foods has been getting deliveries from its wholesaler, but Garry said he's worried that might not be the case in the future.
“We have two trailers coming tomorrow, and I can’t guarantee they are going to be here,” he said. “I don’t want to be alarmist, but if we don’t have the product, there is not much we can do.”
As shoppers packed into aisles, supermarkets throughout the region raced to inform customers of their contingency plans.
“Because this is impacting the retail industry around the world, supply is limited and there are a number of pressures on the supply chain to keep up with demand,” said Deana Percassi, Wegmans director of public relations. “Know that we continue to receive shipments to our stores every day. Although we may not have every variety available, we are working hard to give our customers options in each category.”
The parent company of the Shaw’s and Star Market chains said in an e-mail to customers that it had placed a quantity limit on high-demand items, like hand sanitizer and cleaners, and created a “contact free” procedure for grocery and pharmacy deliveries.
Stop & Shop said that it has stepped up its cleaning efforts, suspended food sampling programs, and implemented an “unattended delivery” program where groceries can be delivered and left outside a customer’s door.
Joe Schmidt, operations supervisor for Market Basket, said stores are seeing increased sales in canned goods, pasta, tuna, and paper. The company is working closely with suppliers, many of whom it has longstanding relationships with, he wrote via email. “We continue to have robust supply to our distribution centers. All deliveries to stores continue to be on schedule."
Meanwhile, Whole Foods said it was suspending its in-store food and cosmetic product testers from stores, modifying the operations of its food bars, and no longer allowing personal, reusable containers at its smoothie and coffee bars. The company’s parent company, Amazon, has committed an additional $1.6 million to its fund that will help cover any emergency health care costs incurred by its staff. Amazon is also expanding its capacity to provide online grocery orders through its Amazon Fresh delivery service.
Supermarket industry experts said that while stores should do their part to assuage customers’ health and safety concerns, the larger concerns about lack of food availability are unwarranted.
“There’s no point in panicking, the supply chain is not stopping and the stores are not closing,” said James McCann, a local investor for early-stage food and retail companies, and the former CEO of Ahold USA, the parent company of Stop & Shop and Hannaford.
He said that most stores’ supply chain and buying teams will be trying to guess what the demand will look like for the next three or four weeks, and begin placing orders, while manufacturers will be trying to step up production to meet the demand. He expects a strain on e-commerce sales, which usually hover at about 3 percent of total store sales, and estimates that might tick up to about 15 percent if there’s a crush - which could be a challenge for some stores.
From a stocking perspective, McCann said the producers of certain items like hand sanitizers will likely choose to ramp up production and then send their supplies to health care workers who need them most, so it may be a while before shelves are restocked. But for all other aspects of the supply chain, manufacturing should continue largely as planned.
“All of the manufacturers are going to have business continuity plans” which would involve accounting for workers who might fall ill, he said. “We are going to figure out how to produce food to feed the population. They’ll take precautions and we will come through this.”
Here are some photos sent to the Globe Friday showing what the shelves have looked like in recent days, as people make a mad dash for the supermarkets:
Michael Bailey and Hiawatha Bray of the Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent Anissa Gardizy contributed to this report.