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Remember panic-buying hand sanitizer? Good news, there’s a surplus

After a pandemic-induced dearth, it’s on shelves, on sale and being donated. And some believe we’ll keep using it.
Hand sanitizer, a must-have in the pandemic, is now more readily available. What's its future as we re-emerge into the world?
Hand sanitizer, a must-have in the pandemic, is now more readily available. What's its future as we re-emerge into the world? [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 24

A recent blow-out sale near the cash register at a Tampa Circle K might have sparked a Black Friday-like buying frenzy a year ago:

Pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer were three for a dollar. And there were plenty of them.

In the early days of the pandemic, shoppers searched frantically for the elusive germ-killing goo. But in this latest stage, with manufacturers catching up and more people getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, consumers can expect to see a surplus.

Hand sanitizer has become more available at this stage in the pandemic.
Hand sanitizer has become more available at this stage in the pandemic. [ Sue Carlton ]

Early on, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended using hand sanitizer — the kind that’s at least 60 percent alcohol — when soap and water aren’t readily available for hand-washing.

And use it we did. Sales of the stuff skyrocketed about 600 percent in 2020, according to Research and Markets.

Last year, Walgreens was getting pandemic-critical products, including hand sanitizer, flown in, adding vendors and working with local businesses to bolster supply. CVS also reports pushing to meet 2020′s “unprecedented consumer demand.”

The demand is slowing, and there’s a surplus of hand sanitizer inventory, according to Megan Boyd, Walgreens senior manager of marketing and merchandising communications.

“Current demand is still higher than pre-pandemic, but has decreased since its height, creating some surplus.” Matt Blanchette, retail communications manager at CVS Pharmacy, said in an email.

The good news for consumers: The companies say they are discounting and donating.

Last year’s dearth also prompted hundreds of distilleries across America — from Tito’s vodka to local businesses — to help by making hand sanitizer.

Bradenton’s Motorworks Brewing teamed up with Tampa’s Dark Door Spirits and made 10,000 gallons of sanitizer from beer, donating it to first-responders and selling it to consumers at cost.

“Once the major companies got caught up with it, we stopped doing it,” said Barry Elwonger, sales and marketing director at Motorworks. “Our intent was never to make it a long-term thing. It was to help our community and give our employees something to do while we were shut down.”

From St. Petersburg’s 3 Daughters Brewing, hand sanitizer was donated to local government agencies and schools last year. Now it’s used throughout the brewery and is also for sale.

“It’s needed, but it’s available now,” said Jessica Bodkin, director of operations and events.

Some appear to have invested in people’s future interest in hand sanitizer.

Gojo Industries, the makers of Purell — perhaps the best known brand — has added a factory and a warehouse and hired 500 people.

In January, the Wall Street Journal quoted a company vice president who called the pandemic “a real wake-up call for everyone globally on the importance of infection protection.”

Gojo is making and shipping 300 percent more Purell than in 2019, corporate communications senior director Samantha Williams said in an email.

The company’s research indicates that 84 percent of adults “expect to see hand sanitizer offered in public places” as they head back into the world, she said.