Concern about the ongoing spread of COVID-19 is far from over, but the panic buying of many cleaning and other nonfood products that strained the supply chain last spring seems to have subsided.

The surge in infections that emerged this fall and winter has created more demand, but the entire supply chain was better prepared this time around, according to retailers and others in the industry. By last fall, retailers and suppliers had evaluated the conditions that led to widespread out-of-stocks and responded accordingly by limiting consumer purchases and adjusting store stocking procedures.

“One of Kroger’s key takeaways from the first phase of the pandemic in the spring is that we should’ve set product purchase limits earlier on high-demand products like paper towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies,” a spokesperson for the Cincinnati-based retailer told SN.

As a result, Kroger proactively put purchase limits in place in early November in an effort to help ensure that all customers could have access to high-demand products. Customers are limited to two items per purchase on bath tissue, paper towels, disinfecting wipes and hand soap.

The purchase limits have remained in place, and apply both to in-store and e-commerce orders, the spokesperson said.

Minneapolis-based Target Corp. made some adjustments to its supply chain this fall to maintain better in-stock positioning on high-demand items, including cleaning paper items and cleaning products, a Target spokesperson told SN. The retailer coordinated among its stores, distribution centers and suppliers so that cleaning products would be fast-tracked through the supply chain and prioritized for restocking.

Target also placed limits on several items, including bath tissue, disinfectant wipes, flushable wipes, hand and face wipes, multi-purpose spray cleaner, gloves and other products.

“We’ll adjust limits as needed, and respectfully ask all guests to consider their immediate needs and purchase accordingly, so more families can find the products they need,” the spokesperson said.

Co-op shuns overstocking

One small retailer, Weavers Way Co-op, a six-unit cooperative based in Philadelphia, has been able to remain in-stock on high-demand items throughout the pandemic, the company said.

This fall it made the decision not to stockpile items such as cleaning products in order to minimize pressure on the supply chain overall.

“We have not put any plans in place to carry extra stock,” said Norman Weiss, purchasing manager for Weavers Way. “We have thought about it, but we have not decided to pull the trigger on it. We don’t want to contribute to a shortage. We are hoping it won’t be necessary. If people don’t panic, hopefully things will just remain the way they are.”

He said sales of many general merchandise items tripled in the spring at the start of the pandemic, and the retailer imposed purchase limits on some items. That hasn’t been necessary since cases began to rise again in the fall, however, Weiss said.

Weavers Way has managed to keep its shelves stocked by tweaking its supply chain, he explained.

“We’ve filled in from existing suppliers,” said Weiss. “If one supplier was out one week, we went to a different supplier, or to a new supplier.”

In order to remain in-stock on some items, including paper towels and bath tissue, Weavers Way turned to its institutional suppliers, and the retailer continues to rely on them to meet demand, said Weiss.

“A few customers complained, but by and large, people were just happy to get anything,” he said. “They are still the most dependable supplier.”

Suppliers throughout center store categories have focused on carrying fewer SKUs of products in order to focus on the items most in demand, which results in reduced selection for consumers, Weiss said.

“That’s a little annoying for our customers, but everybody understands,” he said. “People are adapting.”

Hand sanitizers lead sales gains

Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its coronavirus transmission guidance in May to indicate that close personal contact — as opposed to touching contaminated surfaces — appeared to be the primary way that the disease spreads, retailers continued to report increased demand for items such as gloves, disinfectants and hand sanitizers.

Data from Nielsen shows that hand sanitizer sales across all retail channels increased nearly sevenfold in 2020, with dollar sales volumes up 581.4%, to $1.35 billion, for the 52 weeks through Dec. 12, compared with year-ago levels. Aerosol disinfectants, meanwhile, saw sales increase 115.9%, to $622.1 million.

Other high-demand, nonfood items that saw sales spikes in 2020 included:

• Multipurpose wet wipes, up 66.8%, to $234.3 million;

• Paper towels, up 23.7%, to $6.77 billion; and

• Bath tissue, up 20.8%, to $11.28 billion.

Sales of bath tissue and paper towels returned to near-normal levels after the spring stock-up, but they did spike again in November. Nielsen data show that sales of bath tissue and paper towels increased sharply, with dollar sales of bath tissue up 53% for the four weeks through Nov. 21, compared with a year ago. Paper towel sales were up 41.1% in November.

Cleaning products suppliers have also had to rethink their supply chains in the wake of the spring surge, said Brian Sansoni, senior VP of communications, outreach and membership at the American Cleaning Institute in Washington, D.C.

“Cleaning product makers have certainly adjusted their manufacturing and raw material sourcing plans since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “They’ve ramped up ’round-the-clock production, worked with third-party manufacturers to produce the most in-demand products, shifted production from less in-demand product lines and maximized the sourcing of their ingredients and packaging as much as possible.”

Overall, the result is that consumers have been seeing greater availability of cleaning supplies such as hand sanitizers and some disinfecting products, Sansoni said.

“It still may take until spring of 2021 for some of the most popular brands of disinfecting sprays and wipes to regularly be replenished on supermarket shelves,” he said. “The demand still remains very high for trusted brand names that are still desperately needed by healthcare and commercial institutions, as well as by the consumer marketplace.”

Source: Supermarket News