Bananas were one of the items that were clearly in high demand at stores in the Kansas City metro area March 17. ( Ashley Nickle )

Veteran retailers report that demand and foot traffic in recent days have been unlike anything they have ever seen, as concerns about coronavirus COVID-19 prompt widespread stock-up buying.

“One of my stores said it perfect — it is like the day before Thanksgiving every day, with no end in sight,” Kevin Byers, senior produce merchandiser for Seattle-based PCC Community Markets, said March 17. “It seems like everything is flying of the shelf — literally everything — with sturdier items increasing.”

He noted onions, potatoes and garlic are a few of those hardier items seeing particularly high interest.

Nicole Hulstein, fruit category manager for Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, also noted unprecedented demand for many fruits and vegetables.

“My team is doing a good job overall of keeping products flowing into our stores for customer purchases,” Hulstein said March 18. “Most commoditized produce is in good shape but is being shopped down daily. The opportunity comes in items that are being produced like convenience fruit/veg and packaged salad.”

“I have never seen such busy stores for so many consistent days,” Hulstein said. “It can be compared to a holiday shop that doesn’t stop!”

Mike Roberts, director of produce operations for Springdale, Ark.-based Harps Food Stores, said March 18 that while potatoes, onions and carrots have been tough to keep in stock, herbs and squash are also up double digits, perhaps from people planning to cook at home more.

Shopping started really ramping up Wednesday afternoon, “Thursday was unbelievable,” Friday was even busier than Thursday, and unusually high demand continued over the weekend and Monday, Roberts said.

Chris Keetch, director of produce and floral for Carlisle, Pa.-based The Giant Co., said March 18 that demand is up across every category.

“The hardest hit on the vegetable side are potatoes, onions, carrots, cooking vegetables and garlic,” Keetch said. “On the fruit side, berries, citrus, bananas and apples are leading the categories.

“In my 26 years in the industry, I have not seen this number of consecutive days of elevated business,” Keetch said. “It’s like we’re forecasting a Nor’easter every day for the past 10 days! I’d also want to acknowledge and thank our produce teams on the front lines, and our suppliers have been going the extra mile to enable us to service our stores and customers with a very high service level/fill rate.”

Dave Rhodes, director of produce and floral for Findlay, Ohio-based Fresh Encounter, also described the demand in recent days as something he had never seen before.

“We have our holidays and of course blizzard snow events in the winter — those all happen for a day or two,” Rhodes said March 17. “It has been nonstop for several days.”

“For produce, the items that we have had a hard time with keeping on the shelf is potatoes and bananas, but also getting resupplied on these items has been slow,” Rhodes said. “All other items of course have picked up as well, but our suppliers have done a great job keeping us supplied.”

Rhodes, along with the others, mentioned that the company’s employees have done a remarkable job of keeping stores operational, working long hours to take care of shoppers.

“Our customers have been very appreciative of what we are doing and very understanding of items that we may be out of,” Rhodes said.

Roberts said that, on his recent visits to stores, he has been telling his produce managers to go home and take a break, but they have opted to continue working. It is his understanding, from conversations with his counterparts across the industry, that this has been a typical response as grocers scramble to meet the demand from shoppers.

“It’s not really about profits — it’s more about serving the communities that we operate in,” Roberts said. “That’s the bigger cause.”

Numerous retailers have adjusted their store hours to allow time for sanitation and restocking, and many have allotted an hour or so at the start of the day for only seniors to shop so that group — which is reportedly more susceptible to the coronavirus — can shop in a less busy environment.

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