When hurricanes threaten, Floridians know to expect some usual suspects to disappear from store shelves, from bottled water to canned goods and other non-perishables.
Retailers prepare months in advance, planning their inventory distribution to meet the demand. And while many stores have faced temporary shortages of everyday household items due to the pandemic, they say inventory is returning to normal levels, though some items like cleaners and disinfectants can still be hard to find.
Compared to previous years, Home Depot’s inventory of hurricane supplies is relatively similar, said Pete Capel, vice president of field merchandising.
“We start moving hurricane supplies into our distribution centers months in advance, and that’s been no different this year,” Capel said in an email. “We move product early so we’re able to pre-position truckloads of essentials when we see a hurricane developing.”
As stores started seeing panic buying at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, Home Depot implemented workflow strategies “similar to how we respond to hurricanes,” Capel said.
Home Depot isn’t the only company to have benefited from experience with hurricane supply chain management. Southeastern Grocers executive Eddie Garcia said with the company’s past experience, he’s confident that its stores, which include Winn Dixie stores, will be able to meet demand despite the pandemic.
“This current pandemic is similar to shopping we’d see just prior to a hurricane, except this situation has no end date,” he said in an email.
For its part, Publix has seen most of its in-store inventory return to pre-pandemic levels, with the exception of toilet paper.
“The grocery industry is resilient, and we just needed to be patient and allow the industry an opportunity to recover,” spokesperson Maria Brous said in an email.
Still, Dave Connor, a spokesman with Pinellas County’s emergency management team, said stores’ supplies can change quickly when a hurricane is approaching.
“That’s a snapshot of right now,” he said.
Emergency management experts say Florida residents shouldn’t wait for an approaching storm to prepare.
The county recommends that people buy a week’s worth of nonperishable foods in advance. Those sheltering at home should also purchase a two-week supply of fluids for the household. Residents should begin buying masks and cleaning supplies now to avoid pre-hurricane shortages.
“You don’t necessarily have to do your hurricane shopping all in one go,” Connor said.
Gradually preparing for a hurricane now can help prevent crowds and shortages later, he added.
There’s no reason for customers to buy more than they need, said Seckin Ozkul, an operations and supply chain management professor at the University of South Florida.
“The supply chains are getting back to normal … so I think the consumer is not going to feel so crunched,” he said.
While stores prepare for hurricane season in the midst of a pandemic, many retailers have shifted their strategies to store more inventory, Ozkul said. As a result, consumers can expect to see fewer shortages but prices may increase slightly to compensate for the cost of storing extra inventory.
“That cost needs to come from somewhere and normally it’s the consumer that pays,” Ozkul said.
Nature’s Food Patch Market & Café is one such company that has been stocking up. General manager Sean Balsley said normally the store would keep inventory low. With the pandemic, that’s changed.
“It’s been more of a get it while you can mentality,” he said.
As an independent store, Nature’s Food Patch has an advantage in that it can more easily switch brands to keep up with consumers’ demands, Balsley said. With hurricane season, however, he does worry about crowds.
“I think that hurricanes will create that kind of panic where a lot of people will come in at once,” Balsley said.
In St. Petersburg, Orlando Latin Market owner Freddy Castillo said he hopes to see supply chains stabilize more before the peak of hurricane season, as he’s still seen shortages of some items. The store has been stocking up on nonperishables as it prepares for customers’ increased demands.
“We’ve been here for 16 years, and we know that people buy a lot of canned food,” Castillo said in Spanish.
Not all small stores have been say they have been consistently affected by supply chain changes, however. Rollin’ Oats manager John Leitenberger said the store’s natural suppliers have helped it keep items on the shelves during the pandemic.
“It’s changed our daily operation,” he said. “It hasn’t changed our supply.”
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2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane
PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job
NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter