Amid the long lines and product shortages at H-E-B in recent days, a customer at a store in Schertz felt so grateful, he sent a mariachi group to perform for cashiers and shoppers over the weekend.

Others sent coffee and pizza to fortify workers who are on the front lines of H-E-B hysteria as confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus spreads.

“Our customers have been pretty fantastic and showing their appreciation in very unique ways,” said an H-E-B spokeswoman.

The grocer unexpectedly has found itself having to manage consumers’ anxious response to the coronavirus outbreak this past weekend. Images of empty shelves at all area grocery stores, then abnormally long checkout lines, posted to social media, fanned the flames of frenzy as people stocked their “pandemic pantries.”

“The warehouses are full. Quit panic buying,” said W. Nim Kidd, chief of the state Division of Emergency Management, in a press conference with Gov. Greg Abbott and Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Monday.

Meanwhile, H-E-B responded by announcing it will donate $3 million to organizations in the community nonprofits supporting a response to the coronavirus outbreak, including $150,000 for the San Antonio Food Bank, $500,000 to organizations such as Meals on Wheels, and $300,000 for research into finding a coronavirus cure or vaccine.

Starting Tuesday, H-E-B also plans to deliver 15 trailers of supplies to food banks across the state, supporting efforts to double up on food distribution for those who can’t afford to stock up.

Panic buying at grocery stores began about two weeks ago when shoppers, accustomed to full store shelves and options aplenty, couldn’t find hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Then it was toilet paper, cleaning products, and bottled water. Milk and bread and pasta shortages followed, and so did limits on how many of certain items customers could buy at one time.

The shelves at South Flores Market H-E-B are empty of all toilet paper and most paper towel rolls. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

H-E-B has worked to assure customers there are no shortages – only a supply chain that can’t keep up with buyer panic that has gripped the nation. And that the company is prepared for the disaster that may still be coming.

“We’ve been preparing for this – as soon as news broke about what was happening in China,” said H-E-B spokeswoman Julie Bedingfield on Monday. “So for several months now we’ve had teams looking at what this could do to our communities how it would impact the business and how we can be prepared.”

But people, unsure of what might lay ahead, rushed to stores, ordered online for pickup and delivery, and stocked up on all the basics, picking the shelves clean at H-E-B, Walmart, and others in a matter of hours.  

Research firm Nielsen released data published by the New York Times that showed sales of some pantry items, such as rice and beans, up 50 percent since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S.

The same kind of hoarding, Nielsen reported, happened in China and Italy.

Shelves are empty in Castroville’s Walmart on Monday, March 16. Credit: Shari Biediger / San Antonio Report

“I don’t think we’ve ever experienced a situation like this,” Bedingfield said. “We’ve experienced volume and traffic into our stores, obviously, similar to hurricane response, the difference there being it’s much easier to forecast how long we’ll be dealing with something like a natural disaster.”

Bedingfield said H-E-B also is working to decrease the turnaround time for online orders for delivery or curbside pickup, which can be up to seven days currently. She also said H-E-B considers those services a better option to serving the elderly and vulnerable populations than a dedicated “senior hour,” as some have suggested.

In addition, the grocer has reduced its hours to allow time for restocking and has pulled workers from its restaurants and other parts of the store to help.

As workers at the nationwide specialty grocer Trader Joe’s talk of long hours, poor treatment, and unionizing, Bedingfield said, “We will take care of our partners.”

In the meantime, because H-E-B is prepared, there should be no panic, or “even over-preparing,” she added.

“Continue to shop with us like you normally would,” she said. “If you’re out of toilet paper, you need toilet paper. If you’re not out … you may not need it today.”

One H-E-B store manager on the far North Side was broadcasting that message Monday morning to shoppers waiting at the checkout, thanking them for their patience and reminding them that shelves would continue to be stocked.

Customers applauded.

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Shari Biediger

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