They came, they saw, and they’re conquering the shelves of some small-town grocery stores and pharmacies.
With the media full of images of shoppers in large communities lined up around the corner of big box stores, and row after row of empty shelves inside, some big city residents are flocking to small outlying towns in search of supplies.
What started as anecdotal stories flying around small communities have been confirmed by those on the front lines.
“Absolutely, people are coming from somewhere else,” says an employee at I.D.A. Pharmacy in Ashcroft.
“Two women from Merritt who have relatives here phoned them and asked if we had toilet paper in Ashcroft. They were told ‘yes’, so they came with about 20 of their friends in several vehicles and loaded up on stuff.”
She says that the “big six” things people come looking for are toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, masks, gloves, and thermometers. The store has been making its own hand sanitizer, which has sold out twice, but toilet paper remains the number one item people are coming from out of town looking for.
“I’ve had people come up to me in the toilet paper aisle several times, telling me they’re from Merritt and Lillooet and they’re out of toilet paper there.”
She says that most people have been understanding. “We have a sign up saying two [packs] per person. On March 17 we found six packages of toilet paper in the back and put them out. A man and woman came up and one said ‘I can buy two and you can buy two.’
“I said that we have a lot of old age pensioners here, and asked if they could limit themselves to one each and they were absolutely fine.
“Pleasantness is a good way to get through these things.”
Ashcroft Safety Mart has also seen an influx of people from outside the area, with the store manager noting he’s had people from Merritt, Lillooet, 100 Mile, and many from Kamloops.
“They’re mostly here because the stores in their communities have empty shelves. They’re looking for hand wipes, toilet paper, sanitizers, canned goods, potatoes, flour, sugar, and bread.”
Traffic at the store is about twice as busy as usual, but shipments are not coming in as quickly as they normally would.
“That’s understandable. All the suppliers and manufacturers have been caught off guard. A lot of our suppliers have seen their orders go up substantially and they’re behind the eight ball.
“They weren’t prepared either. It’s not like a regular holiday like Christmas or Easter, where we start planning two months before for staffing and supplies. It should be no problem getting things, it will just take a little while to get everyone back on line.”
At Clinton Budget Foods, new owner Nav Singh has seen people coming from out of town, as well as highway travellers driving between Kamloops or Vancouver and Prince George stopping by.
“The big cities are out of groceries so they’re stopping here to do a general shop,” he says.
The store has put a limit on toilet paper to make things more convenient for local seniors, but Singh says that otherwise people are finding everything they need. “We’re good on stock.”
The AG Foods grocery stores in Scotch Creek and Chase are also seeing an influx of people from larger centres.
“Some people are telling us they’re from out of town,” says an employee at the Scotch Creek store. “I’ve noticed some new faces. Someone put it on Facebook that we have stock, and people are buying quite the buggy full.”
At Freshmart in Lumby, 25 minutes east of Vernon, head cashier Jo-Ann Parr says that they have been coping with orders coming in only half-filled and up to two days late. Staff are working as fast as possible to restock the meat cooler, and toilet paper is flying off the shelves. “It’s going out as fast as it’s coming in.”
An issue the store is facing is people from out of town coming to Lumby to stock up.
“We’re getting people from Vernon and Kelowna coming out here,” says Parr, who doesn’t think it’s fair that some Lumby citizens are going without because outsiders are buying up stock.
“We’re trying to help our community,” she says. “There’s a lot of seniors here and families who have to wait until child tax [cheques]come in.”
Grocery stores in Cherryville, east of Lumby, report that they have not been immune to the toilet paper craze, but Lori Petersen — a cashier at the Cherryville Emporium — says for now staff haven’t noticed a big difference. Frank’s General Store was sold out of toilet paper, Lysol wipes, and hand sanitizer, but other than that things have been normal, according to owner Lisa Schwartz.
In Enderby, the IGA and Red Basket grocery stores have experienced shortages. “The products are coming in, but they’re just going out faster than they come in,” Red Basket general manager Seng Phung says, adding that people don’t need to panic.
“It just takes time to stock and it takes time to order.”
IGA assistant manager Matt Briard says the store is seeing shortages of a variety of items, including toilet paper, paper towels, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, bleach, tomatoes, beans, and more.
He notes that around 60 items were either vendor-shorted or out of stock in a recent order. “We had half our order pretty well shorted.”
In McBride, more than two hours east of Prince George, the manager of McBride AG Foods says he hasn’t noticed many people coming from the city, although some people who are heading to Prince George are stopping in.
Like many other rural stores, he says they’ve had some problems getting supplies. “They’re limited, but they’re still coming in.”
However, he adds that while local customers are buying a little bit more — which he says is understandable — they’re not overstocking and there’s no panic. Many other people who were interviewed for this article say that local customers have been overwhelmingly calm, good-natured, and understanding during a stressful time.
One interesting trend was noted by Paulet Rice, who with her husband Steve owns the tiny Pantry store at the Packing House in Spences Bridge, a community of about 140 people. Located out of sight of the Trans-Canada, the store hasn’t attracted the attention of out-of-towners, and Paulet says that while they still have toilet paper, they’re sold out of junk food. “People are bored, and they’re eating that.”
She also points out that tiny stores in small communities can often have the edge over their big box cousins. “Some locals are pretty shocked that we still have toilet paper.”
Recently Steve found a big pack of Clorox wipes that they had purchased a year or so ago in the storeroom, and put them out on the shelf.
“Someone from Spences Bridge said they looked all over Kamloops for Clorox wipes but they were all sold out,” says Paulet. “Then they came in to the Pantry, and were very excited to see them, and bought some.”
With files from the Vernon Morning Star.