Bracing for supply shortages, Alaska bush grocers are boosting orders and planning ahead

Alaska Commercial Co. in downtown Dillingham. (Photo by Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

Demand for products like hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and toilet paper has spiked across Alaska, spurred by concerns over the coronavirus.

That strain has been tough for some rural communities.

The Alaska Commercial Co. operates 33 stores around the state, several of which are in Bristol Bay. In an effort to get ahead of that demand, ACC General Manager Walt Pickett said that at the beginning of March, the company started to increase its orders from suppliers and manufacturers, and stock its warehouses in Washington state and Anchorage.

“We’re making the case with different groups that we should be given special consideration, given the remoteness of our customer base and the remoteness of our stores,” he said. “And we’ve had very good feedback from both manufacture and wholesale groups with regard to who we are and where we are. So that’s definitely a help.”

Those groups include United Natural Foods Inc., which has a location in Centralia, Washington.

Pickett said they are facing demands similar to other stores across the country: more paper goods, shelf-stable foods and cleaning products. He’s expecting shortages on certain things, like hand sanitizer, but he said they are planning to reduce redundancies in stores by going to alternative suppliers if one runs out.

“We do know that — for example, Clorox wipes, some of the hand sanitizers — it’s going to take probably four-to-six weeks before there’s an inventory available again. But we are doing everything in our power to get that,” he said.

ACC is working with carriers to ensure that service continues as scheduled, and according to Pickett, common air carriers like Alaska Airlines and Ravn have said they plan to continue providing service to rural Alaska.

The company is also creating contingency plans to move products into the communities should shipping be compromised. For example, if a water carrier had problems moving goods from Washington to Anchorage, ACC could charter a plane to do so.

N&N Market is one of three grocery stores in Dillingham. Manager John Warch says they are continuing normal orders. (Photo by Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

N&N Market is one of three grocery stores in Dillingham. According to store manager John Warch, suppliers are moving paper products around the country, but since N&N’s products are shipped in on bypass from Seattle, it takes about two weeks to get goods up to the Bristol Bay region.

Warch said stores in the bush will be strained because shipments are less regular than in the Lower 48.

“We get one shipment a week, where they can get up to five or six,” he said. “We’re still doing orders, it’s just a matter of what they have on hand because of the major panic-buying down south.”

N&N is still ordering as usual — Warch said it’s just a matter of waiting for the suppliers to acquire the items and ship them up.

Meanwhile, Bigfoot LGM Inc., the employee-owned bulk item store in Dillingham, is bracing for an impact.

Majority shareholder Darrell Jones said that one of their suppliers, Costco, was no longer exporting certain items.

“Flour, chicken breast, chili, sweet peas, sliced peaches, Vienna sausages, granulated sugar, peanut butter, GermX, napkins, Clorox, all cleaning supplies, period,” he said, reading off an updated list he received Monday.

Jones estimates it will take two months to catch up with the current shortages from manufacturers and suppliers.

“The shelves are wiped out down here,” he said, speaking from Fife, Washington. “As soon as they got it in, it’s gone. I’m not getting anything right now. I mean, they want to take care of us, but I guess they got nothing to take care of us with.”

Bigfoot is bracing for the impact of panic-buying in other parts of the country. Because stores in rural communities are at the end of the supply chain, the effects of panic-buying in other parts of the country hits them later.

“When I do get supplies and finally get it, it’s when all the stores down here have caught back up, and it still takes me three weeks to get it up to you guys, and that’s only if the barge is leaving at the right time,” Jones said.

Consumer anxieties around coronavirus could have prolonged repercussions for rural groceries. According to Jones, it could take five weeks after everything settles down before there is a steady flow of products to the stores.

To combat empty shelves, Bigfoot stores will likely start limiting the number of items customers can buy at a time for certain products. Jones is probably going to limit store hours, but he is sensitive to the toll that could take on employees.

“People got bills to pay. I got employees to take care of. So yeah, it’s a tough thing. It’s a big Catch-22,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, they will do everything they can to get as much product as possible to bush communities.

 

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