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Empty shelves, future fears haunt retailers facing coronavirus

From left: A Giant in Sinking Spring, a Wegmans in Allentown and a Weis in Macungie have shelves emptied by shoppers prepping for the coronavirus spread. PHOTOS/SUBMITTED –


Shoppers around the region are finding the same thing at area retailers – empty shelves.

With a run on cleaning products, soaps and even toilet paper, consumers are finding shortages on a wide range of basics as people try to prepare for the worst in case of any coronavirus-related quarantine.

It’s frustrating to consumers, said Denise Ogden, professor of marketing at Penn State Lehigh Valley.

“In the U.S., we’re not used to going into stores and seeing empty shelves,” she said. “It puts a little sense of panic in you.”

In the long run, Ogden said, it’s going to be harmful to retailers as well.

She said while sales registers are ringing now, retailers are going to get slammed by the coronavirus as they find it more difficult to restock shelves – especially products manufactured in China where the virus began.

She said people are also likely to be less inclined to go into brick and mortar stores in the near future as they seek to limit contact with crowds to avoid getting sick.

That’s going to hurt retailers, especially those that don’t carry those in-demand items like cleaning wipes.

Retailers are trying to be proactive.

Like with any business, retailers are concerned about preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Jim Boscov, chairman and CEO of Boscov’s, sent out a letter to the company’s customers letting them know the steps that were being taken to minimize the coronavirus risk.

Among the precautions are instructions that any employees who are sick should stay at home and that all employees in stores have been instructed to follow recommendations for hand washing and avoiding touching their face, nose and mouth.

He also noted that all Boscov’s facilities, including stores, offices and public service areas are cleaned daily and they have increased the frequency and focus of those cleanings with special attention to sanitizing bathrooms, door handles, hand railings and any other frequently touched surfaces.

In addition to such precautions, he said hand sanitizers have been placed throughout stores for customers and coworkers to use.

While larger retailers like Boscov’s have a battle plan, Ogden said she does have concern that some retailers won’t be able to recover from the losses they suffer from a coronavirus-related downturn.

“We could see some stores go out of business. The magnitude could continue to grow,” she said.

In the meantime she recommends retailers concentrate on their e-commerce options and make sure everything is running smoothly for shoppers who are avoiding stores.

Those who specialize in delivering retail goods are even making changes to accommodate virus concerns.

Instacart, a company that has home delivery from a number of Lehigh Valley-area grocery stores, said it is adding an option to leave grocery orders at a customer’s door, so they don’t have to make contact with the delivery person who had just been in the retail store.

Writer Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 610-807-9619, ext. 4104. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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