As the novel coronavirus spread across the globe in February, H-E-B was taking note of how shoppers reacted in places such as Italy and Spain.

So when the grocer opened an emergency operations center at its San Antonio headquarters March 4, the company already had some idea panic-buying might occur here, how to manage the frenzy, and when it might end.

“We’re predicting anywhere from another couple of months to three months,” said H-E-B spokeswoman Dya Campos. “It’s really difficult to tell. It all depends on how quickly our cities and local governments and state governments respond to helping slow the spread and how quickly we can get the spread under control and get past us.”

In the meantime, San Antonio-based H-E-B has become one of the city’s economic bright spots as shuttered businesses put employees out of work and tourism evaporates.

H-E-B announced March 13 it is hiring temporary workers for its stores and warehouses. Since then, the company has received 40,000 new applications, said Julie Bedingfield, a company spokeswoman. In addition, H-E-B gave all hourly employees a $2 pay increase, extended medical leave to employees, and promised that any employees diagnosed with coronavirus would continue to receive pay.

To cope with demand, the grocer has reduced its operating hours to restock shelves and begun “metering” entry to stores. Limiting the number of people who can enter the store at one time has resulted in long lines of people and shopping carts that at times wrap around the building.

On a drizzly Sunday morning at one Northside store, however, shoppers waiting in line were spotted inviting the elderly to skip ahead.

Once inside, “social distancing” signs, placed throughout the stores, remind shoppers to keep their distance from one another while cleaning and sanitizing continues nonstop.

Decals applied to the floor of an H-E-B store remind shoppers to keep their distance from one another in the checkout line. Credit: Wendy Lane Cook / San Antonio Report

“The things that we can do to slow the spread are very important,” Campos said. “We can get through it even faster than Italy or other areas have if we learn from their from their key lessons.”

But as the crisis unfolds in San Antonio, the measures to protect both customers and employees won’t stop there, Campos said. Social distancing could be enforced more strictly in lines outside the stores, for instance, and an existing plea that families send only one person to the store might become a requirement.

“We are a family company – we love to have families in our stores under normal circumstances,” Campos said. “But these are by far not normal circumstances.”

That might be evident in the shortage of toilet paper – a global issue, according to Campos, a phenomenon that psychologists call the bandwagon effect, or perhaps more fittingly, the “contagion effect.”

Purchases of paper products in the U.S. during the first week of March were up 59 percent more than a year ago at that time, according to data from IRI, which tracks consumer spending. The demand for hand sanitizer is up 454 percent.

The spikes and plateaus in consumer product purchasing will continue, stated Doug Baker, an executive with the food industry association, FMI. “But supply pacing helps ensure these out-of-stocks are short-lived and that the supply chain can respond.”

An FMI spokeswoman said the nation is experiencing a demand event, not a supply challenge, meaning the supply chain will catch up once demand slows. “In the meantime, we ask that customers be a bit patient with us and take only what they need for the short-term,” she stated. “The grocery stores are deemed essential by the federal government, so they will remain open, and the shelves will be restocked.”

At H-E-B, like many other grocers, product limits are in effect on everything from meat and milk to paper products and canned goods. That will continue, Campos said, so that H-E-B can ensure the stability of the supply chain.

The company is also increasing the capacity of its curbside pick-up service. “Every day, we add more slots,” Campos said. “We want more people to be able to not come into the store. That is our goal.”

Disclosure: H-E-B’s chairman, Charles Butt, is a financial supporter of the Rivard Report. For a full list of supporters, click here.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.