Coronavirus retailer reaction: the second wave

Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
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As the coronavirus outbreak rises in the United States — there are more than 700 cases reported — retailers and the industry are in a second-wave of reaction. Target, H-E-B, Kroger and other retailers are putting limits on purchases of hand sanitizers and virus-related items, and more trade shows have been postponed.

COVID-19 stems from a member of the coronavirus family that is similar to SARS and MERS, which have seen outbreaks in the past. Health experts have urged consumers to regularly wash their hands or use an alcohol-based sanitizer to prevent the spread of the disease, so supplies on sanitizers, disinfectants and more have been going fast at retail.

Overall hand sanitizer sales are up 313.4% for the year.

Nielsen released another round of data for the four weeks ended Feb. 29 and the sales spikes continue. In its previous four-week report ended Feb. 22, sales of hand sanitizer were up 73% compared with a year ago. They’re now up 127.5% for the four-week period ended Feb. 29 compared with the same four weeks a year ago. Overall, hand sanitizer sales are up 313.4%.

Sales of household maintenance masks are up 475% overall, and the latest four-week report saw a nearly 257% increase in sales, compared with a year ago. Medical masks sales are up 173.6% in the last four-week report. Food and cleaning categories are seeing increases too in the latest four-week roundup: aerosol disinfectants (46.6%, nearly 100% overall), first aid kits (up 22.7% for the four weeks, 52.3% overall), bath and shower wipes (23.8% latest, 59.6% overall), oat milk (348% last four weeks, 322.5% overall) and canned meat (16.6% latest, 31.8% overall). Fruit snacks, pretzels, water, supplements, pet medicine and more are all seeing double-digit growth similar to the categories above.

A shelf in a Publix in Florida.

Some retailers have responded to these spikes in sales by putting limitations on how much product a shopper can buy, preventing some shoppers from stockpiling. A story from Fox Business said Target is restricting sales of hand sanitizers and wipes to six per shopper, and Kroger shoppers are limited to five, including cold- and flu-related products. It also cited Costco having stock challenges. Publix stores in Florida have been seen with low stock on cleaning products and water, too.

Target CEO Brian Cornell took to the company's blog, A Bullseye View, to tell customers that it is adding hours to every store's payroll to support more rigorous cleaning, which, on top of daily cleaning procedures, now includes cleaning checkout surfaces and touch screens at least every half hour. It also has stopped food sampling "out of an abundance of caution." Target also is staffing up its order pick-up and curbside pick-up support teams, Cornell said. 

H-E-B announced that it would company scale back its presence in community gatherings, and eliminated all business-related air travel domestically and internationally. The retailer also announced it would put limits on items to prevent stocking up.

A Walgreens spokesperson previously told Store Brands: “We have been seeing greater demand for certain products, such as face masks and hand sanitizers, in many of our stores. We’re continually and closely monitoring the situation, and continue to work with our supplier partners to best meet the needs of our customers.”

Also on the drug store front, CVS Pharmacy has decided to waive fees for home delivery of prescription medication. 

Linked to stock problems, sister publication Progressive Grocerreported that the Consumer Brands Association has requested Attorney General William Barr to protect consumers from price gouging of items that are limited in stock in stores and online where Amazon has seen sellers gouge prices considerably.

FMI — the Food Industry Association has created a resource for retailers called “Coronavirus and Pandemic Preparedness for the Food Industry” that can be downloaded here, and hosted a March 10 webinar on coronavirus with Dr. Ian Williams with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Screenshot of Fresh Thyme announcing a way for suppliers to reach the retailer over RangeMe, in wake of Expo West postponement.

The United Fresh Produce Association also created a landing page with resources and information.

Industry conferences, networking events and shows are continuing to get postponed. They include:

  • Expo West, which was scheduled for March 3-7;
  • The International Housewares Show in Chicago, scheduled from March 14-17;
  • The Seafood Expo in Boston;
  • The Lead Sumit 2020, slated for May, has been moved to July;
  • ShopTalk in Las Vegas has been moved to September;
  • Global Retailing Summit has been moved to October; 
  • SupplySide East in Secaucus, N.J., has been postponed to June 23-24;
  • IRI Growth Summit in Orlando, Fla., is canceled;
  • South by Southwest in Austin, Texas was canceled; and 
  • The National Association of Chain Drug Stores canceled the 2020 NACDS RxIMPACT Day in Washington, D.C., replacing a council meeting with a phone call.

Expo West, in particular, was a show store brand suppliers used to get out in front of retailers. The online platform RangeMe has been leveraging its virtual connection between retailers and private brand suppliers in the wake of the show’s postponement. Both Thrive Market and Fresh Thyme held virtual networking events over the platform, dedicating entire days to review virtual product submissions over RangeMe.

Jonathan Lawrence, senior director of grocery and natural living at Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, promoted on Linked, saying the company will review submissions from new companies on March 20, and they have until March 19 to submit to them.

Jeremiah McElwee, chief merchandising officer at Thrive Market, developed a separate submission channel with RangeMe just to accept submissions from suppliers. He also promoted the announcement on LinkedIn and tied it to the cancelation of Expo West.