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Panic Buying Is Back. How Bad Is It This Time?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A little shiver went down my spine this past weekend as I prowled the aisles of my neighborhood Trader Joe's, specifically in the cleaning supplies, paper product aisle, where the multipacks of toilet paper are gone. They're back to selling individually wrapped single rolls. Now, you may remember this spring the empty store shelves, no toilet paper, no Clorox wipes. If you wanted yeast, forget it. Flour? Good luck. Well, Leslie Patton covers food and restaurants for Bloomberg News. And she has been reporting on what looks like a new round of panic buying. Here we are eight months into the pandemic.

Leslie Patton, hey there. Welcome.

LESLIE PATTON: Thank you.

KELLY: How bad is this new round?

PATTON: You know, it's not as bad as what we saw in the spring when the pandemic first started, but we're starting to see a ramp up and a run on certain things again as we head into colder months.

KELLY: And is it the same things?

PATTON: A lot of it is. So it's not super surprising that things like cleaning supplies, sanitizing wipes, paper products - but also, you know, there are some stuff that's a little more surprising. And that is a direct effect of COVID. So in certain cases, plants have had to shut down manufacturing facilities because of outbreaks of the virus. And so that's created holes in the supply chain. Albertsons, the large grocer, the owner of Safeway, has told us that certain packaged meats, deli things, hot dogs - those are still tough to get. Along with - you mentioned some of the baking supplies, like flour. They've also said that those are hard to get right now, too.

KELLY: Can you put any numbers on this for us, Leslie, that just point to - help us understand the situation in which we find ourselves?

PATTON: Sure. So some of the big companies have put out a few numbers that we could talk about. General Mills, the large food manufacturer of Cheerios, of Annie's Boxed Mac and Cheese, has added 45 production lines. Campbell Soup spent 40 million to expand production of Goldfish crackers. You know, parents are working in home. They need snacks for their kids. There's also some data out there showing huge spikes in demand - 3,400% for certain baked goods from the same period a year ago.

KELLY: Sorry, did you say 3,400%?

PATTON: Yes, that's exactly right. Huge demand for baked goods. People are putting on their chef's hats more than ever.

KELLY: So it sounds like both - manufacturers are responding and ramping up supply, but people's demand is also skyrocketing.

PATTON: Yeah, that's exactly right.

KELLY: And it sounds like the message from retailers is just, everybody, calm down (laughter). We've got you. You're not going to be able to fill your entire SUV, but you're also not going to starve to death this winter. So just, you know, take this with some perspective here.

PATTON: That's right. I think that is the message - that, you know, we're not going to run entirely out of toilet paper or anything. Hey, keep your neighbor and your friends in mind when you're buying toilet paper. Do you want them to have anything or not? So, you know, buy a reasonable amount. Buy what you need. We will be able to fulfill the supply chain in a reasonable manner - is kind of what they're saying. You know, but at the same time, people are worried. The virus is very scary right now. And numbers are rising across the country, and we're headed into the colder months.

KELLY: That is Leslie Patton. She writes about food and restaurants for Bloomberg News.

Thank you.

PATTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.