What It’s Like on the Front Lines of Panic Buying at Costco

Shoppers are climbing shelves and disguising their appearance.

a line of people in front of costco
People have been lining up hours before opening at Costco since panic buying has set in because of the coronavirus.
Getty Images

Key Insights:

In recent weeks, we’ve seen panic buying in the U.S. spread from masks and hand sanitizer to toilet paper and shelf-stable goods like oat milk and Twinkies.

Experts say panic buying is all about control—or lack thereof. Consumers are worried and feel powerless, so they focus on fortifying their homes. And Costco Wholesale, the members-only warehouse that sells goods in bulk at nearly 550 U.S. locations, is arguably the epicenter of consumer panic in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

One employee at a Costco in Oregon, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution by her employer, described the scene at her warehouse as “crazy” and “nonstop.”

Reports of product shortages have prompted some shoppers to set up camp chairs outside two-and-a-half hours before the warehouse opens at 9:30 a.m. And, on Friday, March 13, she said they had 660 cardholders pass through the front doors within 15 minutes of opening.

But, because some of these members brought guests, she said it’s impossible to know the actual number of customers who flooded the store. And, while some locations have limited the number of shoppers who can enter, most have not. (Indeed, location data company Foursquare reported visits to bulk retailers like Costco were up nearly 39% between the week ending Feb. 19 and the week ending March 13, with the largest spike in the New York area at 51%.)

Another challenge for those on the floor at Costco is that the overall sense of panic and uncertainty hasn’t yielded the best shopper behavior.

While her store has implemented limits on high-demand products like dairy, eggs, toilet paper, towels and baby wipes to curb hoarding, she noted that the shopping frenzy has made it difficult for employees to keep up with routine tasks like bringing out forklifts to lower pallets that are stored on top of steel shelving before there is room on the floor.

And, in recent weeks, they’ve also had to deal with customers climbing those shelves in order to get bags of rice and ramen, risking injury to themselves and fellow shoppers. “I’m sure you’ve seen the photos,” she said.

And then there are those who try to game the system.

“We’ve had little old ladies fighting, people trying to change outfits and their appearance to come back through the line again, not knowing we’ve keyed our systems to limit them,” she added.

In its Q2 results, Costco acknowledged, “February sales benefited from an uptick in consumer demand. … We attribute this to concerns over the coronavirus, and estimate the positive impact on total and comparable sales to be approximately 3%.”

But the employee we spoke to said this uptick has been particularly harrowing for staff members, with some working 11-hour shifts and answering phones that never stop ringing with questions from customers “asking if we have the things they know we are out of.”

Employees have also had to shift to other roles in other departments when coworkers haven’t shown up—and it’s starting to take a toll.

“A guy in line [said] because I was so chatty, I was the reason his children would go without toilet paper, which we sold out of long before he showed up at Costco; he’s yelling, cursing at me on the way out,” she recalled. “Usually, I can let people roll off my back pretty easily, but with the nonstop stress lately, it’s been hard to take things in stride.”

Still, she said she and her coworkers are grateful for their paychecks given that so many in their community are being laid off. That said, they do have concerns, especially about their health.

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