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Grocery store shelves await restocking early in the morning in Toronto on March 13, 2020.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

When Harmony Samra went to her local No Frills Thursday afternoon in Toronto to pick up some food, she wasn’t prepared for the chaos inside, where customers were filling multiple carts seemingly with anything they could grab off the shelves.

Grocery shoppers across Canada face long lines and empty shelves at some stores as the novel coronavirus outbreak prompts people to stock up on toilet paper, cleaning products and other supplies. Social media users are sharing photos and videos of closed entrances to manage crowds, bare shelves and massive checkout lines.

“Yesterday was just panic,” said Samra of her experience around 2 p.m. Thursday.

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She waited about 10 minutes in the parking lot to find a spot and, once inside, had to search for a shopping cart.

“People were literally everywhere,” she said, with people in groups shopping with two or three full carts.

There was no toilet paper in the store. It was nearly out of pasta and most cleaning products, she said, and staff would roll out skids filled with goods from the back to keep supplies up.

Initially, Samra planned to pick up a few small things, but her plans changed when she saw the situation.

“When I saw everybody else stocking up, I’m like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll buy an extra couple packs of pasta myself, just in case.’ You never know. So I ended up stocking up more.”

Getting through check out was also an ordeal.

“The line up just continued to grow,” she said.

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Samra has heard similar stories from her friends. One told her they attempted to visit the same Toronto store Friday morning and there was a line formed before it even opened.

Another Toronto No Frills posted a sign Thursday explaining it had closed one of its entrances and will only be allowing in a limited number of shoppers at a time.

“Due to the unforeseen overflow of customers we are controlling the number of people coming in to the store,” it read.

Lisa Campbell, who spends time in Toronto and Calgary, has been ordering food rather than face grocery shopping. But, she said she’s worried about the situation in Alberta, where some grocery stores struggled to keep shelves stocked before coronavirus panic-buying began.

She saw bare shelves at a northern Alberta grocery store for the first time recently.

“I think that stress here is compounded with the recession. It’s like a double whammy in Alberta right now on top of so many other issues.”

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She heard from someone recently about a Calgary Costco sold out of meat products.

A staff member also sent her photos of their local grocery store with a nearly empty produce section, and other empty shelves as well.

Loblaw Companies Ltd., which owns the No Frills brand and other major grocery chains, declined to respond to questions about whether any of its brands are placing limits on the numbers of certain products, such as toilet paper, that customers can buy, and whether it has noticed a spike in sales of any products. It also did not answer questions about whether it provides grocery store employees with paid sick leave and how much.

A spokeswoman did say in an e-mail that stores are not increasing prices. Some social media users have complained of allegedly hiked prices on toilet paper and hand sanitizer at Loblaw’s Shoppers Drug Mart chain.

In lieu of answering questions, the company sent a letter from CEO Galen Weston to its loyalty program members.

The company expects its stores and pharmacies to remain open, he said, and is “introducing safeguards” to ensure staff won’t lose pay for coronavirus-related absences.

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He noted many Canadians are turning to online shopping and delivery options amid fears of going into public spaces, and said the company is eliminating pick-up fees for click-and-collect orders and reducing prices of delivery items.

He acknowledges “some items will be sold out” in stores and said Loblaw has “assigned an entire team to the challenge of rapidly restocking key food, health, cleaning and comfort items.”

Metro Inc. also did not respond to questions.

Sobey’s is not placing limits on any products outside of regular promotional activity through its flyers, spokeswoman Jacquelin Weatherbee said in an e-mail.

“We are not implementing any further product limits outside of promotional activity,” she said, noting the company has seen a lift in sales in certain categories. That bump started February 28 and accelerated March 8.

“We saw overall elevated sales increases clearly attributable to public concerns surrounding coronavirus.”

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Sobey’s customers are increasingly purchasing non-perishables, such as household cleaning supplies, paper products, and canned and packaged health foods, she said. The company is also asking all sick employees to stay home and offers a sick benefits program.

Many of the customers flocking to grocery stores want to stock up on toilet paper and photos circulating on social media show long, empty shelves where the bathroom staple once lived.

“It’s been a crazy few weeks as consumers are obviously stocking up on essentials in case they have to self quarantine,” said Dino Bianco, chief executive of Mississauga-based Kruger Products, which makes Cashmere and Purex brand toilet paper, along with other tissue products.

Retailers have increased their orders from the company by about 20 to 50 per cent, he said, and the company is working overtime at its seven Canadian plants to fulfill the demand.

“There is no tissue shortage,” he said, adding the company has the raw materials to produce the product and is just catching up on demand, which he believes should happen within the coming days.

Other suppliers also seem to be seeing an increase in sales.

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“But it’s not a 100-per-cent dramatic lift, where we are selling out of our products on the floor,” said Steve Bamford of Fresh Advancements Inc., an importer and wholesaler of fresh produce.

“We haven’t increased any of our prices or seen any shortages of product,” he said.

People shouldn’t panic because Canada’s food producers have enough supply to handle the situation, he said.

Bamford said he’s not ordering or bringing in extra product because he figures the food situation will balance itself out between people at grocery stores stockpiling and venues being closed or restaurants sitting empty.

When Bamford, whose family has been in the wholesale produce business for 139 years, first heard about COVID-19 he was worried about the health and safety of employees and business interruptions, so he paid close attention to how China and Italy were handling their food situations.

Food, he said, was deemed essential by the Italian government, helping the wholesale market there.

Workers at the Ontario Food Terminal in Etobicoke, Ont. – the largest fruit and distribution centre in the country – are being reminded to limit contact by keeping distance between them, wash their hands regularly, use hand sanitizer and practice good hygiene.

With files from Tara Deschamps

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