'Nobody was ready': Retail Council of Canada urges consumers to stop panicking as grocers stripped bare
TORONTO -- The Retail Council of Canada is urging consumers not to panic after an “unprecedented” number of Canadians flocked to grocery stores, stripping the shelves bare of items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and non-perishable goods.
“We were all taken short when people started to crowd and actually over purchase,” Marc Fortin, president of the Retail Council of Canada Quebec, told CTVNews.ca by phone Friday. “Nobody was ready for that.”
On Thursday, panicked buying spurred by a myriad of cancellations, closures and new cases of the COVID-19 virus left stores across the country with empty shelves, hour-long lineups, and concerned citizens.
Fortin said that grocery stores and pharmacies across the country accommodated for a “buffer” of inventory following similar activity in the U.S., but added no one was quite prepared for the “unprecedented” level of consumer panic.
“We want Canadians to know you don’t need a supply of toilet paper or rice for nine months,” Fortin said.
“Let’s not fall into panic mode.”
The spike in shopping activity comes after unprecedented action in Canada and abroad as more cases were announced Wednesday and Thursday.
On Thursday, it was revealed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in self-isolation after his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, tested positive for the virus. Three additional provinces, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick, also announced their first presumptive positive cases.
The spread of the virus has also prompted widespread suspension of major league sporting events and large gatherings. B.C. health officials have recommended against travel outside of Canada and schools across the country are cancelling classes.
In Montreal, shoppers reported shelves void of essentials like milk, bread, toilet paper and cleaning products, as well as dry and canned foods.
Several big box stores in Saskatoon sold out of toilet paper entirely after news broke of the province’s first presumptive positive case. Shelves usually stocked with disinfectant sprays, wipes and bleach were empty in several stores. Shoppers were also seen loading up their carts with rubbing alcohol where it was available.
In the Greater Toronto Area, stores like No Frills, FreshCo and Loblaw’s trended on Twitter throughout the night as residents documented so-called “pandemic shopping,” penning new hashtags like “panic buyers.”
“Visited my local Zehrs – lineups around the store, empty shelves of pasta and flour, toilet paper and tissues, canned beans and tuna,” read one tweet.
“One shopper in line came here because a fight broke out at her local No Frills over the last box of Kleenex.”
“The world’s gone mad,” Windsor, Ont. resident Leo Lucier said in a video showing massive lineups and picked over shelves at his local Superstore location. “I had to film this because I couldn’t believe what I’m seeing here.”
Lucier’s video, one of hundreds showing the chaos at local stores Thursday, garnered over a million views in less than 14 hours.
The Retail Council of Canada, which represents all of the major grocery chains in the country, said its teams are working to replenish stores across the country as quickly as possible.
“Our teams are working with producers abroad and in Canada as usual. Our warehouses are full of products. It’s now a question of replenishing the stores which is going to take time,” Fortin told CTVNews.ca
Grocery stores are also seeing a surge in online delivery orders, which Fortin takes as a positive sign that people are listening to health official’s advice.
“We are adjusting, getting more employees in, and making sure we are going to be able to fill those orders,” he said. “It’s a really good thing because if you are sick, you shouldn’t be coming into a store.”
Above all, Fortin urged consumers not to panic, noting that Canada’s supply chain is one of the best in the world.
DO YOU NEED TO STOCK UP?
In certain emergency situations, experts note it can be useful to have a week or two's supply of food and water, as well as some medical supplies and any prescription drugs.
But it's not always necessary – or useful.
Last week, Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu encouraged Canadians to gather food and medication in their homes.
But it’s important to note that she only recommended that consumers stock up in preparation for “a week or so.”
"It's good to be prepared because things can change quickly," she said. "It's really about, first of all, making sure that you do have enough supplies so if someone in your family becomes ill, if you become ill, that you have what you need to survive for a week or so without going outside."
Dr. Ronald St. John, the former director-general of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said it’s important for Canadians to think about what kind of food they need and would last for 14 days.
While experts recommends stocking up on non-perishables, canned goods, snacks, water and, yes, hygiene products like toilet paper, they say it’s important not to take on a hoarding mentality.
"Go about your daily life and relax and things are going to be fine," Samuel Veissière, assistant professor at McGill University's department of psychiatry and co-director of the Culture, Mind and Brain Program, told CTV News Montreal.
"There's not going to be a shortage of food, there might be a temporary shortage of face masks, but don't forget companies are making money on this. People know how to exploit these vulnerabilities. It's the illusion of scarcity."
Veissière notes the most important thing is not to stress.
"Worrying does lower your immune system, so actually people would be better off underestimating an actual threat," he said.
- With files from CTV Montreal, CTV Saskatoon, Rachel Lau and Jackie Dunham