For the past couple weeks, the scenes inside of grocery stores can best be described as chaotic In the grocery trips I've been to, plus those of many of my co-workers and friends who have shared on social media, entire sections of stores have been cleaned out by everyone stockpiling food and supplies. Lines of customers looking to get extra cases of water or toilet paper form hours before opening.
Unfortunately, this situation has made it hard for many others, including several who are immunocompromised or otherwise can't shop due to the dangers of exposing themselves to the coronavirus, to obtain just the basics they need to get through the week. Many stores are offering "Elderly-only" hours as one way to fix this, but the store shelves still continue to be wiped out.
This is deeply concerning because it threatens the food security of many people, especially those who may not be able to get to grocers first thing in the morning. Those who can often travel to multiple stores to get just what they need on a short-term basis. Meanwhile, many essentials, including milk, eggs, and other in-demand items, continue to remain out of stock.
However, it's not a concern of whether we have enough food. Grocery stores have made it clear that is not the case, and are hiring en masse to try to get shelves stocked and supply chains sped up as quickly as possible. At this point, what we need is a drastic solution in order to ensure that more people, and those in need, have the same access to food as those who are stockpiling.
There is a model that some companies and stores have followed that could present a novel solution: creating a reservation system for shoppers to use to shop for the groceries they need, rather than allowing people to stockpile.
A system like this has already been used before by companies like Nike and Disney. Nike will set up reservations to purchase shoes for any hype sneakers they do limited drops on. Disney, meanwhile, had been utilizing "boarding groups" that are called throughout the day for admission to its Rise of the Resistance rides in Disneyland and Disney World before both parks closed.
Disneyland's system works by opening up reservations for each day at the park's opening, then cutting them off once a certain number is filled. Anyone who gets a boarding group can then head to the ride when their number is called, and have a two-hour window to enter.
A system like this could work for grocery stores because it would control the amount of people in stores at a time. Combined with the limits some stores are imposing on how many goods you can buy, and it gives stores enough time to restock some major goods or ensure that there's enough to go around.
Doing this online could be problematic for those without internet access or that show up in person, so it would probably need to be a combination of physically signing up in person as well as online sign-ups, with limits to each.
Could grocery stores be convinced to move to these reservation systems? It's likely that they would have to set them up themselves (which would require development work) as well as regulate/maintain them. There's also the possibility that it reduces the amount of purchased goods overall each day, although given that stores tend to run out by lunchtime anyway, that may not be the case.
Whichever the case, there's clearly a need for some kind of system, as grocers have already started to implement limitations. Some local Trader Joe's stores, for example, are asking customers to limit the amount of items they purchase. Costco is also informing people that it won't accept returns on items like water and toilet paper, in addition to other items they run out of regularly these days.
The biggest question of something like this is who would pay for it. Chances are that the government won't, as they've got bigger problems they're addressing like trying to provide much-needed relief to small businesses (including restaurants).
My guess is that it's going to have to come from the grocery chains themselves, and they may not want to unless they think such a reservation system is essential to business operations. One can definitely make the argument that it is essential, or at the very least, may help prevent grocers from running out of food daily.
Food shortages aren't the problem plaguing our grocery stores. People panicking and overbuying in obscene amounts are what’s causing store shelves to go barren. If you find a way to curb that through a reservation system, then you can not only serve more customers, but also ensure those who need food at this time have access to it.