Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 2

Let's talk a little bit about grocery shopping.

In the "early days" of the outbreak (say, two weeks ago), store shelves emptied almost completely of hand sanitizer. I understand the impulse; I tried to buy some, too. I only ended up with a small bottle for each person in my household, but I expect these bottles to last for quite a few weeks. But this was the beginning of what was ultimately a series of highly irrational responses to the pandemic.

I say irrational because there is only so much hand sanitizer is good for. It's not a bad idea to use some after touching some public surfaces. For example, my daughter and I might go to a playground, spend some time there, and then put some hand sanitizer on in the car on the way home. But it's just a precautionary measure. Our main preventative measure is getting home quickly and washing our hands. A rational response would be to make a run on soap, not on hand sanitizer. As of this writing, however, there is plenty of soap on store shelves.

Toilet paper was next to go. Again, I am not sure what the rational reason is for buying up all the toilet paper on store shelves. Nothing about COVID-19 would suggest that we are in for a toilet paper shortage. But that's how the masses responded. They quickly made a run on toilet paper, of all things.

It's useful to keep these facts in mind when observing the stock market's response to the pandemic. The stock market has predictably plummeted. I keep reading articles, comments on social media, etc., about what the market seems to be indicating about the economy in the future. But I don't believe what's happening to the stock market is any more credulous than the irrational run on toilet paper. That's not to say that betting on a quick recovery is easy money, but I don't think the market has, in aggregate, accurately predicted the future of the global economy any better than my neighbors have, in aggregate, accurately predicted the future of their bowel movements.

There are other grocery store oddities occurring:

  • Frozen vegetables are gone, but fresh vegetables are still plentiful. That, despite the fact that one can turn a fresh vegetable into a frozen one simply by putting it in a freezer bag and placing the bag in the freezer.
  • Walmart and Amazon have little of any kind of grocery left; Kroger is still very well stocked. What does this mean about shopping patterns? What does it mean about the comparative business models of these companies?
  • Sparkling water, apparently a substitute for bottled water, has become almost as scarce as regular bottled water. Strangely enough, there are pallets of Topo Chico available at Kroger, absolute tons of the stuff. Do people think "Mexican" sparkling water is dirty? Do they just not know what Topo Chico is?
An odd fact has arisen from this grocery shortage, too. I'm accustomed to buying things online. When they're in-stock, I add them to my cart, finalize my purchase, and then receive my shipment. But now, when I attempt the same process at Amazon or Walmart (online), it doesn't matter if the item is in stock when I complete my purchase; it only matters if the item is in stock when the store decides to send it to me. Yesterday, for example, I ordered eggs from Walmart, to be picked up at 4 PM. (Actually, I placed my order two days ago.) At the time I finalized my purchase, eggs were in-stock; but Walmart wouldn't schedule a pick-up time until 4 PM the following day. In the meantime, they sold all the eggs out from under me, so that when I arrived to pick up the groceries I ordered, the eggs (and many other items) could no longer be sold to me.

A similar phenomenon occurred at Amazon: I placed a number of in-stock items into my virtual shopping cart, but when I went to finalize my purchase, Amazon wouldn't sell the items to me because they didn't have delivery available until three days hence. So, it didn't matter that the items were "in stock."

Think of this as though it were concert tickets. You buy tickets and have them mailed to you; then, you show up at the venue only to discover that the venue won't honor your tickets because the seats you purchased had been sold to someone else, out from under you.

This is a very bad business practice. I understand the realities of shortages, but the whole point of shopping online is to enter a different queue. Or, if all of us customers are in the same queue, then my place in line should be honored as it is. I ought not get bumped down the queue just because someone else entered the queue from a different doorway.

Anyway, these are some of the shopping issues we're dealing with these days. I honestly expect this kind of thing to pass quickly. I bet shopping, at least will be back to normal within a week or two. But we shall see.

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