Milwaukee-area grocery stores and other retailers have a conundrum on their hands in the face of the ever-growing novel coronavirus outbreak: Ensuring employees and customers are as safe and healthy as possible, while addressing unprecedented demand.
"We've been open for over 15 years, and last week was our busiest ever," said Joe Nolan, owner of Good Harvest Market in Waukesha.
He said his store, which specializes in local and organic foods, has not seen as many empty shelves as some other area retailers. For example, hundreds lined up outside the Costco store in Menomonee Falls over the weekend. And empty shelves could be seen in stores across the region, including the Walmart in Muskego, which had Saturday had empty or near-empty shelves for several products including toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, cleaning wipes, milk, cereal, ground beef, soup and spaghetti sauce.
Brandon Scholz, president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, said heightened demand has been seen across the state.
"We know that statewide, shoppers are going to their stores, they are stocking up, and in many cases they are stockpiling," he said.
Scholz said intense demand started with toilet paper, and has since broadened to products ranging from canned goods to frozen foods.
Many stores have started cutting back hours. Walmart began limiting hours at its stores from 6 a.m.-11 p.m. until further notice, the company announced on Saturday. The Kroger Co., parent company of Milwaukee grocery chain operator Roundy's Inc., also announced it would close its Metro Market and Pick 'N Save stores at 10 p.m. daily. Woodman's also closed stores overnight this past weekend in order to restock items.
And stores such as Target have begun limiting the number of supplies each customer can purchase. Limits are being imposed on products such as hand sanitizer, toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and bottled water.
Scholz said grocers have begun limiting hours not because of product shortage, but to give them time to adequately restock shelves, fully sanitize the stores and give employees a breather.
He said suppliers are ensuring their products are being distributed evenly to stores, so that not all products they have available are just making it to one or a handful of stores.
"Up and down the supply chain, everybody is working to produce what they have produced in the past, and if they can increase production, they will," Scholz said.
Kwik Trip is doing just that. The La Crosse-based gas station and convenience store chain produces several of its own products it sells in stores, such as bread and dairy products.
It is those products that are the highest in demand.
"We're seeing the purchase of our basic commodities ... go through the roof," said John McHugh, Kwik Trip director of public relations.
He noted that the amount of milk Kwik Trip produces in a 12-hour period goes out just as quickly in its stores. This is not usually the case.
"People are buying (our products) at a pretty rapid rate," he said.
As of Monday morning, Kwik Trip had no plans to begin limiting its hours, said McHugh.
Good Harvest, meanwhile, could soon see more empty shelves if customer demand remains this strong in the coming days and weeks, said Nolan.
"If this was to continue, it would be difficult to get enough product, because our distributor is going to have problems," he said.
Good Harvest notified customers in an email on Monday its major distributor would be cutting back on stores' orders as demand has exceeded supply of late. This could lead to certain products being temporarily out of stock. The items could be refilled as soon as the next day, as Nolan noted the store receives new shipments on a daily basis.
Scholz said that grocers, in maintaining a safe environment for employees and customers, are following best practices that have already been in place.
"This (sanitizing of stores) was an ongoing daily effort well before coronavirus showed up," he said. "We are not learning how to sanitize things; we are engaging in the best practices we know."
Even so, things are being cleaned more often. This includes carts, door handles and other heavily used surfaces, Scholz said.