While the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic have been felt across many areas of the economy in the United States, perhaps the most visible symbol of the crisis has been empty grocery store shelves.
As uncertainty has mounted surrounding the length and severity of the recommended self-isolation period, people have been panic hoarding items like toilet paper, cleaning supplies and dried goods.
This week, the CEO of one of America's largest grocery chains issued a public statement in response to the anxious scenes that have unfolded in many of his stores, hoping to quell customers’ fears while assuring people that there will be enough supply to meet the increasing demand — especially if people don't hoard.
For many, the psychological need to hoard originally stemmed from uncertainty and mixed messaging from different levels of government about the severity of COVID-19.
“It’s about ‘taking back control’ in a world where you feel out of control,” Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of the Arts London, told CNBC earlier this month.
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As images of empty store shelves and videos of people fighting over essentials spread across the internet, more people bought into the panic.
“When people are stressed their reason is hampered, so they look at what other people are doing. If others are stockpiling it leads you to engage in the same behavior,” Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at Cambridge University, told the outlet. “People see photos of empty shelves and regardless of whether it’s rational it sends a signal to them that it’s the thing to do.”
Earlier this month, the White House even stepped in to speak out against hoarding, saying supply chains were strong and government leaders were working together on both national and local levels to ensure food supplies remain consistent.
“Supply chains in the United States are strong, and it is unnecessary for the American public to hoard daily essentials,” President Donald Trump said on a phone call with more than two dozen grocery store and supply chain executives, Reuters reported.
As a result of the first wave of widespread panic and empty shelves, stores have been taking more steps to try to limit the hoarding.
In his open message to customers, Publix CEO Todd Jones shared details of the chain's efforts to meet customer needs and ease concern over what appears to be a lack of resources.
“Publix Super Markets’ more than 200,000 associates, along with our business partners, are working around the clock to provide our customers with the food and supplies they need during this difficult time,” Jones said in a video message posted to Twitter Wednesday.
“As you shop with us, we encourage you to buy what you need to allow your family, friends and neighbors the same opportunity — there is no need to buy extra. Products will continue to be delivered daily,” he said.
He also shared that Publix stores actually have more products now than usual in order to meet consumer demand during this time.
“In the last 11 days, Publix has delivered more than 20 thousand truckloads of product, a significant increase from our normal volume," Jones said. "We continue to work with our current suppliers — and new suppliers — to obtain additional product in order to meet the increased demand we are seeing throughout our seven-state operating area."
The chain is also taking additional steps to keep customers and employees safe, like adjusting store hours to allow for additional preventative sanitation. Like many other stores, Publix has also limited the amount of certain high-demand items customers may purchase at one time, and store managers have the authority to apply additional item limits based on product availability at their location.
Other chains have taken measures to discourage hoarding, too. Costco posted signs around some of its stores, warning customers that returns of certain high-demand items (like toilet paper, bottled water and sanitizing wipes) would not be accepted.
Wegmans and H-E-B are limiting purchases on certain items, including bread, canned soup, frozen vegetables, eggs, milk and boxed pasta.
Public response to Publix’s message has been mostly positive, with many applauding the chain for taking the necessary measures needed during this health crisis.
However, many people still complained about a lack of products (particularly toilet paper); though one person who claims to work at Publix noted that people are still panic-buying many paper goods immediately after store workers put more on the shelves.
Publix and other grocery store chains have also been hiring additional employees to meet the demand.
On Friday, Publix announced plans to hire up to 2,000 new employees across all seven states where it's located. Positions available include customer service roles and jobs at distribution centers, a spokesperson for Publix told TODAY in a statement.