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Empty shelves, toilet paper limits return as Americans stockpile necessities again

JOSEPH PISANI and ANNE D'INNOCENZIO
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Looking for toilet paper? Good luck. 

A surge of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. is sending people back to stores to stockpile again, leaving shelves bare and forcing retailers to put limits on purchases. 

Walmart said Tuesday it's having trouble keeping up with demand for cleaning supplies in some stores. Supermarket chains Kroger and Publix are limiting how much toilet paper  and paper towels shoppers can buy after demand spiked recently. And Amazon is sold out of most disinfectant wipes and paper towels. 

A similar scene played out back in March, when the pandemic first hit and people hunkered down in their homes. 

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But Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, formerly the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said he doesn't expect things to be as bad this go-around since lockdowns are being handled on a regional basis and everyone is better prepared.

"A more informed consumer combined with a more informed manufacturer and a more informed retailer should provide all of us with a greater sense of ease and ensure we can meet this growing demand, " Freeman said.

The biggest supply issue seems to be paper products: 21% of shelves that stock paper towels and toilet paper are empty, the highest level in at least a month, according to market research company IRI. Cleaning supplies have remained level at 16%. Before the pandemic, 5% to 7% of consumer goods were typically out of stock, IRI said. 

Contributing to the problem is the fact that roughly 10% of the workforce at manufacturing plants where the products are made are calling out sick, mainly because they've been in contact with others who tested positive for COVID-19, Freeman said.

A woman buys toilet paper at a market in Mount Lebanon, Pa, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. A surge of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. is sending people back to stores to stockpile again, leaving shelves bare and forcing retailers to put limits on purchases. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Kelly Anderson of Colorado Springs, Colorado, said she needs more supplies now that in-person school in her area was canceled earlier this month and her two children are at home more. She's noticed others are stocking up, too: Safeway and Walmart were nearly wiped out of bottled water and disinfectant wipes during a recent visit; both had been easy to find since the summer. 

It's also been harder to find a time slot to get her groceries delivered. Anderson says she's had to wait as many as two days instead of same-day delivery. But that's still not as bad as earlier this year

"March seems like a million years ago, but I do remember freaking out," she said. "I couldn't get groceries delivered for a week." 

Walmart said while supplies are stressed in some areas, it thinks it will be able to handle any stockpiling now better than it did earlier this year. Amazon said it is working with manufacturers to get items such as disinfecting wipes, paper towels and hand sanitizer in stock.