‘I’ve never seen anything like this’

Local grocery stores keep up with demand from shoppers

MATTHEW SHINKLE/The Sun: A ShopRite employee restocks ground beef on the shelves Tuesday, March 17. Due to increased consumer demand, some stores are limiting how many of some products that consumer can buy, such as meats and cleaning wipes.

Snowstorms, hurricanes, massive thunderstorms.

The threat of these annual weather events typically brings shoppers to their local grocery stores to stock up in the event of a catastrophe. Until recently, those possible disasters hadn’t included a pandemic. But the frenzy in recent weeks to stock up in the face of coronavirus has put an unprecedented strain on grocery stores.

“Never in my life have I seen it like this,” said ShopRite Vice-President of Retail Operations Jason Ravitz. “I’ve been out of college for 26 years and I started right when I graduated; I’ve never seen anything like this sustained for this amount of time, ever in my career.”

The Ravitz family owns ShopRite stores in Cherry Hill, Marlton, Mount Laurel as well as a Price Rite in Camden. They are among chains across the country trying to keep up with demand.

The CDC first began addressing the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, in early January. Americans watched for weeks as the virus spread in China and other countries before reaching North America. Once it did, grocery store lines and shortages became perhaps the most obvious sign of a national panic.

In the face of a typical event, such as a hurricane, shoppers may flood stores for a few days. But according to Ravitz, the pandemic has caused a surge in demand for a longer period of time than anything he’s ever witnessed.

“We saw it during the first week in March,” he said. “That’s when the panic started, so it was a while ago at this point.”

Now nearly three weeks later, stores are trying to restock shelves with fruit, water and toilet paper, the shortage of which was one of the most visible signs of panic. ShopRite and other stores have also limited the quantity per customer of items like cleaning wipes and meat.

“Right now, our meat department is what’s been hit the hardest,” Ravitz said. “People now are going to start cooking from home. It’s what we call ‘center of the plate,’ so red meat, chicken, Italian sausage, turkey, seafood … and then people can build around that, so fruit, rice and pasta and pasta sauce are going a lot too.”

Manufacturers, too, have been hard hit by demand.

“The toilet paper thing is an old myth that has gone a little off the rails,” Ravitz explained. “It used to be during snowstorms that that was one of the items — milk, eggs, bread and toilet paper — because people were afraid they would get stuck and run out of toilet paper.

“It got completely taken to the extreme and it caused a temporary manufacturing issue, which is being corrected right now for all of these items.”  

According to Ravitz, ShopRite stores have gone to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule to allow ample time for restocking. 

“We’ll continue to react,” Ravitz said. “The system is definitely stressed, but it’s not broken or anything. Truck drivers are working a lot, warehouse workers are working a lot and retail workers are working a lot, so things are getting a little backed up because it’s difficult to deal with the demand.

“For ShopRite, our warehouses are all in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so we have a much quicker reaction time than any of our competition, and that’s why, I feel, that we’ve been in better shape.”

In response to the high demand from shoppers, the Ravitz family has created a Facebook page called Ravitz ShopRite Corona Virus 2020 Update as a way to better connect with South Jersey residents and keep them aware of which locations are better stocked with certain items.

Since its creation March 14, the page has gained nearly 8,000 followers.

“I started it Saturday night …I don’t want people wasting their time,” Ravitz noted. “I’d rather people make an efficient use of their time going to a place that they know has what they need. Honestly, some may just go to another store after that, whether it be mine or a competitor, but I’m trying to help people make an efficient use of their time.

“Plus, we want to help keep emotions calmer or grounded in times like this.”

The Facebook page has updated residents on precautions ShopRite is taking to protect and help a senior population that has the highest risk of infection.

In all locations, Ravitz’s ShopRite group has provided Senior Citizen Exclusive Lanes so senior shoppers have a shorter wait time. The company is also donating gift cards to to help provide seniors with needed items.