Kim Ammons, Wegmans customer

Wegmans customer Kim Ammons, 54, of Manheim Township, displays her prize find -- a 12-pack of toilet paper -- on Monday, March 30, 2020.

What used to be a trivial purchase can sometimes become a treasure. All it takes is a once-in-a-century pandemic prompting unprecedented levels of panic buying.

So when Kim Ammons went to Wegmans on Friday and found a fully stocked toilet-paper aisle, two weeks after finding bare shelves there, she was delighted.

Ammons exclaimed, “Oh my goodness.” A customer in front of her turned around and replied, “I know. We scored!” according to Ammons.

The 54-year-old bookkeeper, who lives in Manheim Township, was thrilled to buy a single 12-roll pack of name-brand Charmin – the most packs a customer can buy at Wegmans and many other supermarkets here -- for her adult daughter.

But when Ammons returned to Wegmans on Monday to buy toilet paper for her mother, all that was left were 12-roll packs of the unfamiliar Royale brand, in the unusual 3-ply variety. Ammons bought it anyway.

Welcome to the world of supermarket shopping in the COVID-19 era – a challenge for consumers and retailers alike.

A visit by LNP | LancasterOnline to five supermarkets in the county on Monday found shelves somewhat better stocked than two weeks earlier. Only disinfectant wipes were missing at all five stores.

While that outage and others still popped up, store officials are optimistic that supplies will continue to improve gradually.

Store officials say the trick to keeping at least some of the items in highest demand on their shelves for a longer time is more frequent re-stocking of a narrower variety.

“I’m getting toilet paper in each and every day this week,” said Eric Stauffer, chief operating officer of Stauffers of Kissel Hill Fresh Foods.

Still, unheard of demand can empty the shelves. Monday began with a healthy quantity on its Lititz store’s shelves; by noon it was all gone and paper towels were down to a single pack. Tuesday, the shelves will again start out being well stocked.

Producers of toilet paper, bread and other staples are boosting their total output by manufacturing just the best-selling varieties, explained Stauffer. This results in higher overall output by not shutting down production to switch to making other, less popular varieties.

Weis spokesman Dennis Curtin voiced a similar strategy. “We’ve increased our store deliveries 30 percent in recent weeks and that’s helping.” Each Weis store is regularly getting high-demand items such as disinfectant wipes, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but they don’t stay on the shelves long.

Wegmans spokesman Tracy Van Auker echoed the emphasis on boosting production of category leaders. “Although we may not have every variety available, we are working hard to give our customers options in each category,” she said.

LNP | LancasterOnline also visited the Ephrata Walmart, the Weis on Stony Battery Road and the Giant at Lancaster Shopping Center.

Giant’s store – the largest of its 12 in the county -- had the leanest inventory of the five stores, with no toilet paper, paper towels or hand tissues, and few diapers on Monday morning. However, it had much more bread, eggs and other staples than two weeks earlier. 

Giant's spokeswoman, Ashley Flower, said the company is attacking the challenge of keeping shelves stocked across its entire footprint in multiple ways: by adding staff, shifts and suppliers.

"We receive deliveries throughout the day and our team members are working around the clock to restock our shelves and online fulfillment centers. ...," said Flower.

She continued, "We are in frequent contact with our local and national supplier partners to ensure the products our customers are looking for get on our store shelves as quickly as possible.

"We're also sourcing from new and different supplier partners to support our business," she said.