Skip to main content

No Frills parent company Loblaw Cos. Ltd. declined requests to comment on shifts in inventory, as did Costco Wholesale Corp. – a Toronto area store seen here on March 5, 2020 – Metro Inc. and Sobeys parent company Empire Co. Ltd.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

At a Walmart store in Toronto one evening this week, a pallet stacked with yellow canisters of Lysol wipes sat shrink-wrapped at the end of an aisle, waiting to restock a wide shelf that had been completely depleted.

It was just one store, and one example of a widespread run on certain products amid fears about the spread of the coronavirus. Last week, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu advised Canadians to stock up on supplies “to survive for a week or so without going outside” in case someone in their household becomes ill. In general, authorities recommend keeping a reserve of non-perishable foods, water and first aid supplies in case of emergencies. But worries about the virus have spurred some consumers to examine their own preparedness.

As a result, retailers are now assessing how to manage inventory among surges and shifts in consumer demand.

“We are working closely with our vendors as customers have increasing demand for products across a few categories, for example non-perishables and sanitizers,” Walmart Canada spokesperson Adam Grachnik said.

Many stores are responding by increasing orders of products that people are purchasing at higher volumes, or that they anticipate will be in high demand.

“We’re getting reassurances from our domestic and North American manufacturers that, as things stand, they’re able to meet demand, and even increased demand in some product areas,” said Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, though he added that supply chains are still recovering from the effects of recent cross-country rail blockades linked to pipeline protests.

Many retailers have compliance fines that they impose on suppliers if they fail to fulfill orders that they have committed to – how those fines are determined varies for each company. On Thursday morning, industry group Food & Consumer Products of Canada sent a letter to a number of retailers asking for relief from those fines, considering the surge in demand. It did the same during the rail blockades, and has so far received a positive response, FCPC chief executive officer Michael Graydon said.

“Everybody’s sizing up,” Mr. Graydon said. “The manufacturer, in some cases, has to gear up, and may not be running production of that particular product. ... They may be able to move the production up a little quicker, assuming they’ve got the raw materials to be able to run it. There are a lot of variables. There just isn’t this massive warehouse sitting there, with all of this product waiting.”

At a No Frills supermarket in Toronto this week, shelves that held Clorox powder and Lysol and Clorox disinfectant wipes had been cleared, and supplies of some dried beans and cans of tuna were noticeably low. No Frills parent company Loblaw Cos. Ltd. declined requests to comment on shifts in inventory, as did Costco Wholesale Corp., Metro Inc. and Sobeys parent company Empire Co. Ltd.

Online grocery delivery service Inabuggy has delisted face masks and Purell hand sanitizer, which have been depleted at its retail partners. In some cases, drivers are having to shop multiple stores to fulfill customers’ orders.

“Some retailers, their shelves are fully stocked as usual, while others, the shelves are literally empty and you can’t get rice, flour, toilet paper, paper towels, water,” Inabuggy CEO Julian Gleizer said.

The service’s volume of orders has increased 35 per cent over the past two weeks, over and above its typical level of growth, which he attributed to shoppers who are hesitant to go to busy stores but still want to stock up.

‘Isn’t the flu worse?’ And other coronavirus questions answered by Andre Picard

On Friday, health columnist Andre Picard will take reader questions during a live Facebook Q&A. Email your coronavirus questions to