Professor Simon Croom Gives Lifehacker Insights on Why Grocery Shopping Has Yet to Return to Normal

man shops grocery store with half-stocked shelvesPhoto by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

In a Lifehacker article that poses the question, "When will grocery stores go back to normal," University of San Diego School of Business Professor of Supply Chain Management Simon Croom shares several insights based on his expertise in the areas of supply chain management and sustainable and responsible supply chain operations.  

Article as it appears in Lifehacker

When Will Grocery Stores Get Back to Normal?

I, too, thought the toilet paper would be back in stock by now. I got used to seeing empty shelves throughout the grocery and drugstores, but assumed that once enough people had purchased their 20-pack of toilet paper, the shelves would return to normal.

But that has not been the case. Over the past month I’ve wondered if this is the new normal: waiting in line, buying whatever’s available, getting used to adjusted store hours and policies. If you, too, are wondering when there will be toilet paper again, the answer is the one you dread: Not soon, and it’s complicated.

Yeah, we panicked

“Part of [why we impulse buy toilet paper] is the human disgust factor,” explained Dr. Simon Croom, a professor of supply chain management at the University of San Diego. “We don’t want to be left without.”

So you’re going to buy the biggest pack of TP you can find because you don’t want to think about the possibility that you won’t have enough.

That fear of not having enough can be exacerbated by the idea that you’re going to be at home for the foreseeable future. Every time you take a roll out of your bathroom closet, you’re going to see what’s left. Every time you open your kitchen cabinets, you see the real-time supply of food you have available. And as Will Oremus points out for Marker, you’re using your own bathroom and kitchen more, because you’re not going to work or school or visiting your favorite restaurant once a week like you used to.

“Normally, when demand changes, it’s in a short burst, or a slight but significant increase,” said Croom. But the initial wave of panic shopping by customers in early March has given way to sustained buying patterns beyond normal levels. And that’s why you’re seeing empty grocery shelves, weeks after we all allegedly stocked up on toilet paper.

Think of it like a really long hurricane. You know a hurricane’s coming, you see it getting closer on the map, and you go out to buy the essential supplies you need to replace in last year’s hurricane kit. But you wait and wait for the hurricane to come. And until the eye of the storm passes over your house, you’re still going to have that feeling of panic, that voice in your head saying you’re not ready.

The emergency isn’t localized

Unlike a hurricane, which impacts a particular region, the coronavirus has a far wider reach. Retailers have game plans for emergencies like natural disasters, which might include rerouting products to different stores.

But it’s harder to move inventory around to meet geographic need when the need is everywhere. After Hurricane Katrina, the massive rebuilding effort meant that drywall went up in price and was hard to get in areas far from New Orleans, explained Croom.

“Different retailers have different degrees of response to panic buying,” Croom said. How much you, the consumer, notices it depends on that retailer’s playbook.

Imagine how you’d deal with a holiday season that goes on for weeks in the middle of March, Croom said. Then add the need to clean your store and prevent overcrowding on top of it. It’s the perfect storm of...


Renata Ramirez
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