Photos and news footage from across the nation depicting grocery shelves emptied of toilet paper, wipes and cleaning products abound. Locally, there’s little different from the national situation, as shelves have been stripped of many items.
Typically, March is the busiest month of the winter for Clark’s Market, but even now, with the mountain closed and residents sheltering in place, Clark’s is busier than if the mountain were open and skiers were still here. The store started to see higher volume about a week ago but it was last Friday, right as the school district made the announcement to close its campuses, that panic set in.
“That’s when we saw the panic shopping, which corresponded to the sales volume for that day,” said store manager, Mike Jackman. “Last Friday was the single busiest day the market has ever done.”
And while sales have dropped off some with the departure of tourists and second homeowners, there’s still, on a daily basis, almost twice the sales volume that there would be normally.
“There are people in the community who didn’t stock up when others did so we’re seeing that trickle valve on,” said Jackman. “As the valley emptied out with people going back to Phoenix or Denver or Texas, I think people were afraid that they weren’t going to be able to get groceries in their hometowns so they shopped for them here.” Those shoppers, for example, cleared out Clark’s inventory of coolers.
Clark’s is seeing the typical shortages of TP, wipes, paper towels, facial tissue and various cleaning products with bleach. Jackman says he might order 30 cases of TP and receive just two or three, which, even during normal circumstances, wouldn’t suffice for a day.
Grocery stores buy products from distribution centers — Kroger and Walmart have their own distribution centers — while Clark’s is a member of Associated Foods, which operates like a co-op and a distribution center.
“The supply chain had problems because of the volume, that was the biggest issue,” said Jackman. “The demand upon the supply created a hiccup in the distribution chain.”
John Livermore, owner and operator of South’s Market, a grocery service that delivers weekly to Telluride, Mountain Village, Crested Butte, Ridgway, Montrose and Gunnison, from the Costco in Gypsum, says that store has better supplies than most other stores.
“It’s a little tricky because even Costco is rationing TP and wipes now,” said Livermore.
The past three weeks have been record-setting for Livermore’s five-year-old business.
“I had orders for 100 families in the Mountain Village Wednesday,” he said. “And the wait was stupid. Customers were arriving from noon until 9 p.m. and there was a constant line.”
To address the problem, Livermore is implementing booking software so that customers may select a time slot for grocery pick-up. He’s also considering offering twice-a-week grocery pick-up. South’s Market customers place orders online at southsmarket.com by Sunday midnight for local Wednesday delivery. All customers are then emailed times and locations for pick up.
“It’s all about uncertainty,” said Livermore. “Once the supply lanes adjust and people see the shelves filling up, there won’t be as much of a panic and they won’t be buying things they don’t need.”
To address the distribution problem as it affects Clark’s, Jackman has added Sysco and Shamrock as vendors, companies that typically supply food service and restaurants, so that Clark’s can continue to stock shelves.
Jackman says that Telluride’s remote location is actually an advantage to delivery.
“Anybody who’s shopped in Montrose knows how empty the shelves are there,” he said. “We’re at an advantage because we have a smaller community. Even when we are panic-shopped, we have enough shelf depth on certain items to hold us.”
Jackman’s biggest concern around the pandemic is the health of his customers and his employees. This week Clark’s began closing at 8 p.m. — an hour early — to conduct thorough disinfecting across the store.
“All of our people are wearing gloves and practicing heightened hygienic practices,” said Jackman. “Five or six times a day my assistant manager walks around with a bleach-chlorine solution, killing virus on every handle, cart and basket, on glass doors, pen pads, counters, carts, trash cans and the ATM.”
There are currently no plans to pursue emergency hiring because most of Clark’s J1 visa employees, who normally return to their home countries (primarily Peru) in mid-March, are having trouble returning.
“We’ve kept them on and we’re paying for their rent at the boarding house,” said Jackman. “They’ll work as much as we’ll let them.”
Like other stores across the country, Clark’s is reserving its first hour of the morning – from 7-8 a.m. – for high-risk customers to shop.
“We have a lot of regulars who come in on their way to work who aren’t in that high-risk age group,” said Jackman. “This morning I explained what we’re trying to do and every single one of them was totally compliant and thought it was a good idea.”
As one of only a handful of “essential” entities allowed to remain open to the public, Clark’s is on the frontline of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“And we’re really proud of that,” said Jackman. “It’s the same feeling you get when you do something really nice for somebody. It makes you feel warm and good about yourself. Even though these are long hours and nobody’s really getting days off, we have that feeling. We’re proud to serve the community way beyond what we normally do.”
[Editor’s note: The Market in Telluride declined to comment for this story].