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Hey Tampa Bay, where’s my Fresca?

Sue Carlton | Toilet paper and hand sanitizer have crept back onto shelves, but other items we want remain mysteriously scarce

Here is how I found out there is such a thing as coconut flour.

Motivated to do something that felt normal, I was at my local grocery on the hunt for ingredients to bake butterscotch cookies.

But it appeared the flour aisle had recently been savaged by wolves.

On picked-over shelves, I found none of those fat dusty bags of all-purpose flour, no self-rising, no whole wheat. I did find a single coconut flour and an almond flour, too. Who knew such obscure flours existed?

At least the explanation was obvious: America was trying its hand at sourdough, sticky buns and banana bread to get us through this stay-at-home pandemic. This made flour a hot commodity. Yeast, too.

It also made sense that when the coronavirus first hit, our understandable determination to make everything germ free spurred unexpected demand for, and shortages of, cleaning products. One morning in Target, an employee tossed the last tubs of antibacterial wipes to shoppers like we were bridesmaids awaiting a bouquet. They were, weirdly, tropical-scented. But hey, I scored wipes.

I recently asked via Facebook and Twitter what consumers couldn’t find lately and got an earful. Salsa. Prime cuts of beef. Lentils, more than one person said. Big cans of diced tomatoes. Frozen fruit. Charcoal, reported a correspondent from Cape Cod. Chicken pot pies, wrote someone who also requested that we not judge him. Q tips.

Pining for a certain elusive citrusy drink apparently stretches from Tampa Bay to all the way to Chicago, where the Sun-Times chronicled Virus mystery: The case of the missing Fresca.

Still topping the list are disinfectant wipes and your basic Lysol spray. (From lysol.com: Demand is unprecedented and they’re working around the clock.)

Also reportedly scarce are rubbing and isopropyl alcohol. Former Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen said he no longer can find the wintergreen Publix-brand rubbing alcohol he’s been using to wash his face since he was a teenager. He’s rationing and hoping he has enough to get through Labor Day.

So why is seemingly random stuff still in short supply? Why are once-burgeoning store shelves emptied in spots, like a smile missing teeth?

In notes of apology to shoppers posted where products have gone missing, Publix says the “limited availability” is due to “supplier production issues.”

Business experts say the answer is as complicated as the multiple layers it takes to get a dozen eggs into the cooler at your neighborhood Winn Dixie. Each of those layers, from the refrigerated trucks to the distributors to the assorted workforces involved, is experiencing its own jarring jolt from the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s a lot of disruption across multiple tiers in the supply chain, from the farmer all the way to the end consumers — farm to fork,” said Donna Davis, professor of marketing and supply chain management at the University of South Florida Muma College of Business. “There are a lot of companies in between, and every single tier is experiencing high levels of uncertainty about demand and supply.”

Hence the reason you might not be able to find your favorite pasta one week, bacon the next.

“Supply chains are working really hard to adapt as quickly as they can‚ but the changing conditions are outpacing their ability to adapt right now,” said Davis. “But they’ll catch up.”

Kelly Goldsmith, a Vanderbilt University associate marketing professor who works in consumer behavior and scarcity, sees us in phases.

First, we bought products to keep things clean and protect ourselves. Now, many consumers are “comfort-buying, doing what they need to do to feel better,” like purchasing nice wines or escapist video games.

Until we get to phase three and the world starts to feel normal, I’ll just keep using my tropical-scented wipes.

Sparingly.

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