The Outbreak | A Giant Eagle employee on the chaos of panic buying

The Outbreak is a new blog describing the different ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives.

Imagine Black Friday or Christmas Eve at the mall. Now imagine that chaos every single day, with the long lines, limited/no parking and empty shelves.

As a worker at the Waterfront’s Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh, I have seen how customers’ panic has caused a big disruption in how we normally do business — leading to more shortages, bigger orders and hectic days that never end.

I noticed the panic beginning in late February, when I was helping Curbside — a service where workers will shop for Giant Eagle customers — and saw how big some of the orders were. The numbers of orders weren’t increasing at the time, but the size of each order was. In one order, I saw someone request 40 cans of soup along with their other food.

Generally, I am working in grocery, mainly in the frozen and dairy departments of the store. When I signed up to work more hours on spring break to bring in some extra cash, I had no idea that the week would go from a small increase in shoppers to a huge increase on Thursday of that week.

I believe what sparked the new panic was the NBA’s decision to suspend its season on Wednesday, March 11, right after star center Rudy Gobert for the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus.

When I went into work that Thursday morning, I could tell there were more people than there were on a normal weekday. The Waterfront Giant Eagle isn’t a busy weekday store, attracting most of its shoppers on the weekends. I soon realized this would be far from the last day that this would be the case.

So far, it’s been like that every day since. The store is overwhelmed by customers waiting for long periods of time in lines like I’ve never seen in the more than three and a half years I’ve worked there, even before big holidays. While the usual lines can be 10-20 minutes on a normal “busy” day, people were waiting in lines during peak hours for a minimum of 30-45 minutes.

The panic has also caused certain necessities to disappear within a few hours of being put on the shelf — things like bread, water, rice, eggs, milk and other essential nonfood items like hand sanitizer, wipes, paper towels and most importantly, toilet paper.

It has somewhat slowed down these last two days on Sunday and Monday, though I wonder if this is due to people realizing that we are out of so many items that it is fruitless to come back. If the situation gets worse, I can imagine it going back to where it was when the panic first started.

It is extremely difficult to listen to some customers who desperately need these items and tell them we don’t have it. One customer told me she would starve just so she could feed her kids after she realized how few frozen vegetables on the shelf there were.

While many people’s perceptions of retail work are negative, I tend to take pride as a stock clerk for Giant Eagle. The work may be mundane and repetitive at times, but I enjoy putting food out that helps people in their day-to-day lives — from essentials like milk, eggs or frozen vegetables to treats like ice cream and pizza rolls.

That’s why this panic has been so hard for me and other grocery store workers. For one, we are working much longer than we normally do and also much harder than we normally work to get all the stock we can on the shelves. Before spring break, I had never worked longer than nine hours in a day. Now, I worked two 10-hour shifts last week and 13.5 hours on the Saturday of the original spring break just to try and help get the big frozen orders done.

Although some have referred to the cause of these shortages as “Karens” — white suburban mothers who are hoarding loads of Gatorades for their kids — I’m not sure that’s the case.

Working has also been tough due to not being able to social distance during this panic. With so many customers in the store at all times, there is little chance to separate myself fully, keeping me in constant close contact with them. Although I’m not at high risk of dying or dealing with severe implications if I do contract coronavirus, I do wish there were less or even no people in the store to qualm those fears.

Currently, we’re limited in how much stock we can bring into the store each day, so as to allow the warehouses to replenish items. This makes it easier on the truck drivers who bring in products everyday — and also on stock workers like me, giving us time to complete the orders. Sadly, though, ice cream was deemed a nonessential item, so we are not able to get in as much as we’d like to since many of the ice creams are out of stock.

There are also limits on how much you can buy on items like bread, eggs, paper towels and yes, toilet paper, giving more people the chance to purchase them. Still, there is almost never any toilet paper or paper towels on the shelves for long, leading to many customers asking me and my coworkers, “Do you have any more toilet paper and paper towels?”

Although the end of the panic buying seems to be nowhere in sight, I hope people will start to stay home more — especially the numerous elderly customers who come to my Giant Eagle everyday. Also, I hope people will begin to shop only for what they need instead of everything in the store.

I myself have volunteered to work more than 35 hours a week during the panic, even while I work on finishing my last semester at Pitt online. When this is over, I hope that my work helped people in a difficult time of need and that I was able to make their trip to the grocery store a little less dreadful.

I’m also grateful to my coworkers for coming in and working during these difficult times. It has been extremely difficult during this time and they have all made working during the panic a much easier time than it could be.