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The United States is known the world over for its abundance.
This very abundance, most notably in food, makes Americans the butt of a lot of overweight jokes in foreign countries.
With endless buffets and heaping portions piled on oversized plates, it is no wonder that our population is more likely to suffer from diseases related to overindulgence than under.
For the majority of the time we take for granted the ease we have of obtaining food, both in groceries stores or in restaurants.
Sure, sometimes we are reminded of how what we have in America is truly a privilege, especially when we are periodically confronted with news articles and videos of others who are less fortunate in the “lower world” countries.
But these reminders fade quickly, giving truth to the adage “out of sight, out of mind.”
Surely this could not happen in America, one of the greatest nations in the world!
The shift of paradigm.
Oh but happen it did.
The great economic machine of the United States has been essentially brought to its knees, all courtesy of a pathogen measured in microns, COVID-19.
The discrepancy between the size of these two combatants makes David & Goliath look like child’s play.
Very few industries were spared by this microscopic invader.
I have previously written about how even the job security of a physician, a profession with one of the longest track records of great income and security, was toppled by COVID-19.
Even worse than a hit to one’s income is the hit to the resources one has available.
You can be sitting on a stack of gold coins that would make Scrooge McDuck envious but it is for naught if you are unable to acquire necessary items for survival, with food and water having the highest priority on that list.
It Begins: The mad dash.
It is quite humorous if you sit back and analyze it.
My state and local government just announced that we would be under a social distancing policy and that all non-essential workers were to stay at home and non-essential businesses were to either close or find an alternative way to providing consumers with their goods (such as curbside delivery).
So what does the public do upon hearing this news of the importance of social distancing?
Why rush all at once into the confines of the local grocery stores of course!
Sheer bad luck had my normal day of grocery shopping coincide with the day the stay at home orders were issued.
So after work I headed towards Sams Club where I normally shop.
The scene felt like some post-apocalyptic movie.
The expansive parking lot was already filled to near capacity.
Shopping carts were scarce.
I entered the store and there was a sea of shoppers before me.
Forget maintaining a 6 foot distance for social distancing.
You were lucky if you could bob and weave your way through the aisles to get to where you needed to.
And when I finally got to the desired aisles it was like I had stumbled upon a carcass where the meat was completely picked clean.
I have never seen any grocery store, let alone Sams Club, have the majority of perishables and refrigerated goods vanished.
It was quite shocking to say the least.
I was very fortunate that I had taken advantage of some sales Sams Club had a few weeks earlier and stocked up on toilet rolls and toilet paper (aka gold equivalents in this post-corona world).
I shudder to think what the consequences would be if I did not have a nice stockpile of toilet rolls from the bulk purchase I had on the previous shopping trip.
[I still think I would have fared better than most, taking advantage of the Christmas present I purchased for myself a few months ago.]
How scarcity influenced my behavior.
So here I was, standing in the midst of a swarm of shoppers.
A lot of essentials were already picked clean.
Almost every item on my grocery list was gone.
So what was I going to do?
What I ended up doing was looking at what little remained in the refrigerated sections and convinced myself to buy things I normally would not have.
My mentality was that I better get at least something in case this scenario becomes the new norm.
I was able to score a gallon of skim milk that I quickly claimed despite my household traditionally purchasing whole milk.
I similarly compromised on many items as my mindset shifted to scarcity mode rather than the abundance one I had relied on all my life.
All fresh meat products were gone.
Chicken, ground beef, even the expensive cuts of steak, were wiped out.
Long time readers may recall that meat plays an integral part of my diet (I am willing to sacrifice vegetable intake to make room for more meat consumption).
I soon found myself standing in a long line, surrounded by other weary shoppers, waiting to check out.
If there was indeed a COVID-19 microbe amongst us, I am sure everyone would have been exposed to it.
With my grocery list still not fulfilled I reassessed the situation.
In my mind I assumed the role of hunter/gatherer, decided to go on a meat quest, and headed to the next nearest grocery store food chain (Kroger) to see if anything was left.
The fresh meat and seafood counter was closed when I arrived.
Most of the refrigerated shelves here were also picked clean save some of the niche, more expensive, ground beef packets (All Natural Laura’s Lean Beef), which I ended up scooping up.
[The saying,”beggars can’t be choosers” came to mind, however what I had to settle for was on the opposite end of the price spectrum from what the original phrase intended.]
The Aftermath: The lasting effects of scarcity.
Eventually the initial shockwave of people buying/hoarding supplies died down and the grocery chains started replenishing inventory.
Other measures implemented in order to maintain a semblance of social distancing also made the grocery shopping experience more tolerable.
In my last grocery trip, however, I could still feel the effects of having gone through that episode of scarcity.
When I saw an item now on the shelf, I often bought an extra one “just in case.”
Normally I would buy groceries for one or two weeks.
Now I find myself buying supplies for the next 3 or 4 weeks of living.
It is like I do not fully trust the system now, even though it has only failed me one time in over 48 years of my life.
It is easy to see how a much more severe event such as the Great Depression created a generation that did not trust banking after they witnessed firsthand the failure of the economy.
Hopefully the current crisis does not have the magnitude and/or duration of the Great Depression and some normalcy can return.
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Men at work – LOVE it man! Great post, we are the land of plenty and the hoarding stuff needs to stop. We have enough
I agree. What pains me to see is when there are people who then price gouge by reselling the items in demand (saw several articles of people selling toilet paper out of parking lot for $5 or more a roll)
What you described sounds all too familiar. As much as I hate to admit it I too felt this sudden worry. I found myself grabbing unnecessary items on every shopping trip for the past few weeks. My husband has had to talk me out of multiple purchases which is not typical for us. This is just an uneasy feeling for so many of us who are used to our freedom and never wanting for anything. It’s amazing how quickly our mindsets can change.
I think things will get back to normal as people will realize that they do not need to be sitting on a mountain of toilet paper and can go back to their routine purchases.
A teacher of my daughter had a great observation, it is like everyone in America was going on a two week camping trip and had to get all the supplies on the same day. Manufacturers will keep up with the demand which I am sure will normalize soon.
I think the pendulum will swing entirely the other way for several items. Panic buying combined with social distancing, closures, delays, etc. has genuinely upset overall supply chains. Toilet paper was oddly a craze so manufacturers are trying to respond and add more capacity (where they can) or work overtime. Both of which typically increase costs. At some point panic will subside and I’ll realize I won’t need to purchase TP for the next 36 months because I stocked up on 12 oversized Sam’s Club packs of mega rolls. This in turn creates a huge gap in demand after manufacturers… Read more »
Excellent point C-S. You are right that people who have a glut of supplies will remove themselves from being consumers of that product once things settle back to normal.
Hopefully the pendulum does not swing too much the other way or the people trying to help (manufacturers) get penalized.
By far the strangest economic time I have ever witnessed
Thanks again for the excellent discussion. – xrv
Luckily, I saw it coming and stocked up before the mad rush. So we missed the initial wave. Although, I don’t think it was that bad here. Now, things are almost back to normal. I can get pretty much whatever food I want at the grocery store. TP and handsoap are still hard to find. I’m heading out to Safeway later today. Wish me luck.
Best of luck Joe. Yeah things are starting to normalize here too. Toilet paper is still scarce but at least the meat and dairy sections appear to be keeping up with demand. Sam’s club is now having a line form to let people in at intervals so not too crowded inside.