The shortages are back.

Supermarkets and other stores in the Sacramento area are having trouble keeping paper towels, counter wipes and certain other products in stock again as shoppers react to the surge in COVID-19 infections and the renewed lockdown on economic activity.

On Thursday, as Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a limited curfew affecting most of California’s population, the Target store on Broadway in Sacramento was completely out of paper towels and had just limited supplies of toilet paper. The Raley’s in West Sacramento was in good shape for paper goods but was running low on cleaning supplies. The Walmart at the Delta Shores shopping center in south Sacramento was down to about four dozen packs of toilet paper.

Shoppers said the dismal news about the pandemic was fueling their purchasing.

“If people would be more considerate, wear masks, wash hands more often, it would really help,” Paul Johnson said as he grabbed a 20-roll pack of toilet paper from a rapidly emptying shelf at the Target in West Sacramento’s Southport area.

The scene was reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, when stores were regularly cleared out of toilet paper and many food items such as bread. Some merchants, such as Nugget and Raley’s, have resumed placing one-per-customer limits on paper towels, counter spray and other precious commodities.

The phenomenon is hardly limited to Sacramento. Walmart said this week it’s having trouble maintaining stocks of cleaning supplies, while Amazon has run out of many brands of disinfectant wipes and paper towels, according to the Associated Press.

Nationwide sales of counter wipes soared 276% last week, compared to a year ago, according to a database compiled by Florida market research firm Catalina. Hand soap was up 144%.

Raley’s spokeswoman Chelsea Minor said the West Sacramento chain isn’t experiencing shortages but has instituted a two-per-customer limit on paper goods and water. While the chain has struggled to keep the shelves stocked with cleaning supplies, that’s nothing new — shortages began in March and never really abated.

Cleaning supplies “have not been stocked at full capacity since prior to March,” Minor said in an email.


Experts say the shortages are a function, in part, of the movement toward just-in-time inventory, the art of reducing costs throughout the supply chain to ramp up profits. At the same time, industry officials say they’re better prepared for hordes of shoppers than they were in March.

“I’m not going to be a Pollyanna and say things are perfect,” Geoff Freeman of the trade group Consumer Brands Association told the Washington Post. “But we are fundamentally in a different place than we were in March and April.”

The bare shelves sparked shrugs and eye-rolls at stores around the region.

“I might as well get it,” a woman said as she grabbed three jumbo packs of toilet paper at the Broadway Target. “It’s silly, though.”

At the Delta Shores Walmart, Kenya Devereaux took a more philosophical approach as she put a 20-roll pack of toilet paper into her cart.

Devereaux said shoppers are reacting to the potential that economic activity might get shut down even further — a development she’d welcome as a means of reducing the spread of COVID-19.

“There’s too many people passing away,” she said. “I had a cousin who passed away from COVID.”