Tampa Bay grocery stores sprint to keep up with high demand amid coronavirus pandemic

There’s still a steady supply of food, but you may need to be patient.
Customers wait to enter Trader Joe's in St. Petersburg on Wednesday morning.
Customers wait to enter Trader Joe's in St. Petersburg on Wednesday morning. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 18, 2020|Updated March 18, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG ― A woman in a flowery Hawaiian print T-shirt stood at the entrance, handing out disposable wipes and smiles to the growing line of people cued up at the front door.

“All we need right now are some lawn chairs and some margaritas!” she joked, cheerfully.

Meanwhile, a man wearing gloves and hoisting a box of flowers on his hip walked past the crowd handing out long-stemmed roses. Another woman carried out juice boxes and offered them to the line.

“Anyone have a thirsty child?” she shouted. “Thirsty kids? Thirsty adults?”

At 9:30 a.m., the line outside Trader Joe’s in St. Petersburg snaked around the building and onto the sidewalk. Some people showed up an hour before the store’s 9 a.m. opening to get a leg up on the wait, while others continued to arrive throughout the morning.

In the parking lot outside, a woman in a purple tie-dye shirt emblazoned with a peace logo stood on the seat of her car and leaned out the window, taking in the situation and assessing whether the line was worth the wait.

In an effort to adhere to the current federal guidelines of social distancing spurred by the coronovirus pandemic — and amid a week that has seen record numbers of shoppers rush to grocery stores across the Tampa Bay area — this Trader Joe’s was letting in just 25 people at a time on Wednesday morning. A similar practice was observed at a Costco in Tampa, while most other grocery stores are keeping more or less regular operations with some curbed business hours to allow for cleaning and restocking.

The result was noticeable: Inside Trader Joe’s, shoppers idled slowly throughout the aisles, some praising the serene scene while gloved employees hurriedly unpacked boxes, stacked shelves and sporadically wiped down surfaces: cash registers and conveyor belts, windowsills and shelf ledges, shopping carts and baskets.

It was a very different picture than just half a day earlier, when crowds of Tuesday afternoon shoppers were greeted with a checkerboard of shelves — eggs and yogurt, yes; frozen veggies and Mandarin chicken, no. Employees sought to reassure customers that more deliveries were on the way.

As with pretty much everything right now, the scene at grocery stores in the Tampa Bay area is changing fast. Suppliers are sprinting to adapt to constantly changing supply chain needs and an increased demand from panicked shoppers, many of whom are buying up items in bulk.

“Florida retailers are also working to meet the growing demand for necessities,” said Scott Shalley, the president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation. “We’re stocking shelves with items that families need to keep their hands and surfaces clean and healthy, and we’re taking proactive measures to keep surfaces within retail stores clean and safe, as well.”

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At stores across the Tampa Bay area, restrictions have been put in place limiting how much of certain items customers can buy. A sign outside Trader Joe’s implored shoppers to limit themselves to “two per item” for all of their purchases.

When will the most popular items be back in your local store? It’s hard to say. To keep up with demand, many stores have adjusted their hours and are constantly restocking. But the timing of when certain items are available or not is difficult to pin down.

Publix, which recently curbed its hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., has asked customers to not arrive early and wait in line before the stores open, as delivery times vary and deliveries are often made throughout the day.

A Publix spokeswoman said the grocer’s warehouse and distribution centers are working “around the clock” to keep up with the demand. Last week alone, the company logged almost 12,000 truckloads of deliveries to its stores.

“Arriving first thing doesn’t guarantee product availability,” said Maria Brous, the director of communications for the company. “As for high-demand items, those vary by location; however, toilet paper, sanitizer (and) wipes are pretty consistent across the supply chain.”

But despite social media photos of empty shelves and customers hoarding toilet paper, most grocery stores in the area have been steadily replenishing their supplies.

That includes smaller, independently owned stores like Steve’s Produce in Palm Harbor, where morning rushes have been commonplace but the shelves have remained reasonably stocked. Fresh produce is more plentiful than some other food items, including meats like chicken and beef.

Health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic have also resulted in some adjusted early-morning hours for shoppers who are elderly or have compromised immune systems. All stores have significantly upped their sanitization and cleaning practices, which include dispensing sanitary wipes both at cash registers and when customers first enter a store. Shoppers seen wearing face masks are increasingly more common, too, though still in the minority.

At a Walmart Supercenter in St. Petersburg, husband and wife Richard and Gayle Young, who are both in their 60s and immunocompromised, said they wear the protective masks every time they go out in public, especially during their rare trips to the crowded store.

“We have food for a month now,” Gayle Young said. “But we’re not hoarders.”

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