A guy in a beard, work shirt and worn jeans smiled as he tilted the almost empty bin of potatoes back, so I could see the dozen or so spuds left in the bottom.
He was willing to share what was left, a touch of humanity in a week that sure looked like the beginnings of panic. (Ammo sales were twice to three times normal last week, according to news reports.) I smiled and shook my head no, figuring I needed a bag of potatoes, not a handful.
One aisle over, however, the bagged potatoes were long gone, snapped up earlier by folks preparing – scared to the core by what they were seeing on TV – for whatever this Coronavirus deal will bring. There’s so much we still don’t know. A Wall Street Journal columnist likened the lack of reliable data to buying a house when you don’t know what you make, and you don’t know the price of the house. We’re barking in the dark.
So, panicky/prudent folks stock up on groceries. Lots of groceries. The head of Walmart said sales last week were way ahead of Christmas season levels, as worried folks streamed in, on a mission to get prepared.
I do a lot of the shopping at our house. So I was at the big Walmart down the road on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of last week. The change, day by day, was remarkable, and from what I’ve seen in the news, it happened everywhere.
On Tuesday afternoon, most of the aisles looked pretty normal, but shopper traffic was noticeably high. (I didn’t get my usual lucky close-in parking space.) Two things, however, were already sold out: Toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The early birds of semi-panic had already come and gone, carrying off one entire aisle of every kind of toilet paper you can imagine. Same thing in the hand sanitizer shelves. As they say out here in Wyoming (I’m not sure why), “Gone Johnson.”
“Who needs that much toilet paper?” I wondered.
Luckily, I bought some the week before, and when I got home I counted 20 rolls. That ought to be enough for three people, right?
On Thursday, the toilet paper was still sold out, and half of the paper towels on the other side of the aisle were gone as well. (God help our municipal sewer system.) The real action, however, was over in the canned soup aisle, where serious folks were loading their carts, not caring that they were blocking traffic. (Some didn’t look like soup eaters to me.)
Same thing over in canned goods, as pinto beans and diced tomatoes were going fast. Something about a crisis makes folks want to make soup, I guess, and that’s probably a good thing. The dry packets of Lipton Chicken Soup were sold out, but they had plenty of dry onion soup packets left. (Folks want soup, not dip, in an emergency.)
The big change was apparent Friday afternoon. Both sides of the toilet paper/hand towel aisle were completely empty. A fresh box of towels never made it to the shelf, as folks grabbed them from the stock person. Not much left in canned goods. Potatoes: Pretty much gone. The display of packaged deli meats was picked clean.
The near-panic had spread to the dairy section, where there wasn’t a carton of eggs to be had. Plenty of milk, though.
Folks had finally found their way to the fresh meat display. No hamburger. A few of the more expensive steaks were left, but not many. The only things left in the chicken display were packages of bright green marinated chicken breasts, which didn’t interest a virus-conscious crowd. The big bags of frozen chicken were still available, but going fast.
The only thing left in plenty of supply was bratwurst. Plenty of brats, and I wondered if the same could be said at Wisconsin Walmarts.
My most enduring image of the week was the roaming computerized stock monitoring robot named “Bossanova” (we can’t blame it on him), parked forlornly in the empty toilet paper/hand towel aisle, blinking sadly.
We’ll get through this, folks. And we’ll have well-stocked freezers when we come out the other end.
Dave Simpson can be contacted at email@example.com