Brisket, ramen and toilet paper: Grocery stores enforce product purchase limits as COVID-19 cases surge

Erin Donnelly
·9 min read
Supermarket chains across the country are setting purchase limits on household items like toilet paper, disinfectants and hand soap as COVID-19 cases rise. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Supermarket chains across the country are setting purchase limits on household items like toilet paper, disinfectants and hand soap as COVID-19 cases rise. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

Can you spare a square? As COVID-19 cases in the United States spike, supermarkets and other retailers nationwide are taking action to ward off the bare shelves and hoarding of toilet paper and other basic supplies that defined the first several weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. One notable step shoppers will notice as they fill their carts, whether online or in-store: the reintroduction of purchase limits on certain items.

While not every retailer is setting limits just yet — Phoenix-based chain Sprouts Farmer Market, for example, tells Yahoo Life that it has yet to do so, though it has made other COVID-safe arrangements ahead of the holiday season — many are taking proactive measures that they hope will prevent the supply chain disruptions and panic shopping of the spring. In addition to capping select purchases — say, only two packs of disinfecting wipes at a time — those measures may also include optimizing distribution channels and increasing inventory.

“Throughout the pandemic, Target has focused on getting our guests the essentials they need at an everyday low price,” a spokesperson tells Yahoo Life. “Our teams have quickly adjusted to changes in consumer demand, like the surge we saw this spring and the rapid shift to contactless shopping options we experienced throughout the summer and fall. To ensure as many guests as possible can find the items they need, we’ve taken measures such as: coordinating stores, distribution centers and suppliers so that the things our guests need most — cleaning supplies, food, over-the-counter medicine and baby products — are fast-tracked through the supply chain and prioritized for re-stocking; sending more inventory to stores than ever before to ensure Target has the most in-demand items this holiday season; and placing limits on products like toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, flushable wipes, hand and face wipes, multi-purpose spray cleaner, gloves and more. We’ll adjust limits as needed, and respectfully ask all guests to consider their immediate needs and purchase accordingly, so more families can find the products they need.”

Customer shopping behaviors over the last several months have helped retailers identify which in-demand items need to be capped. Generally, that means setting limits on products used to clean ourselves and our spaces: Toilet paper, paper towels, hand soap, baby wipes, cleaning gloves, hand sanitizer and other antibacterial or disinfecting supplies are among the most commonly restricted items.

That makes sense to anyone who remembers the grocery carts packed with towers of Bounty and Charmin last spring, or the anxiety of running low on Purell and wondering if you’d need to make a batch of DIY hand sanitizer. But some restricted items seem less obvious at first glance. The San Antonio, Tex.-based supermarket chain HEB has, along with the usual household items and select first aid products, introduced a cap on brisket over the summer — a nod, perhaps, to Texans’ love of barbecue. (A spokesperson for the chain, which also operates Central Market, did not respond to a press query by the time of publication.)

Other purchase limits apply to foods that are low-cost, versatile, easy and convenient for storing for, if needed, long stretches of time. At the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern chain Wegmans, the store-brand peanut butter is kept safe from stockpiling. Meanwhile, ramen — again, ideal for satisfying hunger on a budget — appears to be a hot-ticket item at Brookshire’s stores in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas; the cheap noodle packets are the only food item included on the retailer’s list of restricted items, with individual packets capped at six and cases at two.

The cupboard staple of canned vegetables — excepting tomatoes and legumes — are limited to 10 per transaction at the mid-Atlantic chain Weis Markets. And at Bashas’, the Arizona-based family-owned supermarket chain, rice and beans fall on the restricted list with a limit of two per transaction. Perhaps taking a lesson from the lockdown fixation with baking which spawned countless banana bread loaves and sourdough starters, sugar and flour are also capped, as are cold and flu over-the-counter medications.

Retailers are taking proactive measures to avoid the empty store shelves shoppers encountered early on in the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Retailers are taking proactive measures to avoid the empty store shelves shoppers encountered early on in the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

Store policies vary greatly — not only from chain to chain, but across individual stores and regions — and are subject to change. But for an overview of what products — from cold and flu medication to baby wipes — are being restricted at some of the top supermarkets around the nation, refer to the list below.

Albertsons (including regional retailers such as Vons, Safeway, Tom Thumb and Randall’s)

“In some markets, we may ask customers to respect quantity limits of select, high-demand items like cleaning supplies to help ensure more customers will be able to purchase the products that they need,” a spokesperson says. “Because supply can vary from market to market, customers should check with their local store about specific stock levels and purchase limits.”

In addition, online orders have a maximum quantity limit of 10 per item.

Bashas’

According to an online notice, stores are temporary limiting quantities on beans, rice, sugar, flour, over-the-counter cold and flu medication, hand soaps, hand sanitizers, sanitizing wipes and Isopropyl alcohol (limit two), as well as bathroom tissue, bleach, napkins, paper towels and facial tissue (limit four).

Brookshire’s

An online notice reads: “In order to better serve all of our guests, we are limiting the following items: baby wipes (2), paper towels (1), tissue (1), hand soap (1), household cleaning (1), disinfectant wipes (1), ramen cases (2), ramen individual packages (6), rubbing alcohol (1) and hydrogen peroxide (1). Please see stores for details.

“We are continuing to receive shipments and restock shelves. We're in this together and it’s important to remain calm. As friends and neighbors let’s continue to come together to support one another and be kind.”

Costco

An online notice reads: “Costco has implemented limits on certain items to help ensure more members are able to purchase merchandise they want and need. Our buyers and suppliers are working hard to provide essential, high-demand merchandise as well as everyday favorites.”

HEB

According to an online notice, brisket and non-food items including disinfecting and antibacterial wipes and sprays, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol and swabs, and first aid and cleaning gloves are restricted at all HEB stores. Some regions, including the border, Central Texas, Gulf Coast and San Antonio, also have caps on bath tissue and paper towels.

Kroger

“To ensure all customers have access to what they need, we’ve proactively and temporarily set purchase limits to two per customer on certain products, including bath tissue, paper towels, disinfecting wipes and hand soap,” a Kroger spokesperson says. “These purchase limits apply in-store as well as to e-commerce orders.”

Sam’s Club

An online notice reads: “We are currently limiting some products to one item per member to ensure that more of our members have access to the products they need.”

Publix

“Last week we implemented customer purchase limits on paper towels and bath tissue due to much higher customer demand, and we, like all other retailers, are on allocation from our suppliers,” a spokesperson says. “We continue to monitor other categories and adjust as necessary ... Stores reserve the right to limit quantities as well to best serve their customers.”

Trader Joe’s

An online notice reads: “We understand that during this extraordinary time, providing for the essential needs of our customers is as vital as ever. We’ve been working closely with our partners throughout the supply chain to ensure that our stores remain well-stocked with the products our customers need and want, as always ensuring we are maintaining great values — providing the best quality products for outstanding prices. Our commitment to value means that we are always conscientious about making any price change — being quick to pass along savings to our customers by reducing our prices when our costs go down; and when our costs inch up, making every effort not to raise our retail prices. If an increase in price is necessitated due to rising costs, and it means that a product is no longer a value, we will stop carrying it. Offering great values is a cornerstone of how we do business at Trader Joe’s, and our commitment to this practice is as strong today as it has ever been.” That said, a spokesperson tells Yahoo Life that there are currently no limits in place.

Wegmans

“While the products on limits have varied, we never completely removed product limits on key items as a way to help us build inventory in anticipation of another wave coming in fall/winter,” a spokesperson says. “We will expand the use to purchase limits to additional items, if and when necessary. To ensure we have options available for customers in every category, we have spent the last several months sourcing additional suppliers, bringing in new brands and working with our Wegmans Brand suppliers to build up our own holiday and winter reserves, in our own warehouses, as well as at our suppliers.”

A list of the items that currently have purchase limits in stores includes: paper towels, household cleaners (includes bathroom cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners and window/glass cleaners), disinfecting wipes, Wegmans peanut butter, all disinfectant sprays, kitchen trash bags, freezer bags, food storage bags, disposable paper plates, bath tissue, surgical gloves and items containing famotidine [a histamine-2 blocker commonly used to treat heartburn and ulcers].

Weis Markets

An online notice says there are limits on multi-pack bath tissue, disinfectant and antibacterial wipes and sprays, liquid and foam hand soap, hand sanitizer, bleach, paper towels, larger quantities of bottled water, canned vegetables (excluding tomatoes and legumes) and Tylenol, Excedrin and TopCare No Aspirin.

Whole Foods Market

An online notice says stores are “limiting the purchase quantities of high-demand items,” but does not specify which items.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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