Lessons from the early days of the pandemic will hopefully keep shelves stocked.

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Woman at the supermarket, buying paper towels in abundance for lack of toilet paper
Credit: Kathrin Ziegler via Getty Images

Depending on where you live, a second wave of Covid-19 may already be a fact of life. In other parts of the country, waiting for it to inevitably arrive is like staring down a slow motion tsunami. All you can really do is hide and maybe try to stock up on the same essentials you purchased back in March to feel some sense of preparedness. 

In an effort to avoid the same kind of hoarding that led to significant shortages earlier this year, however, supermarket chains are not only stocking up themselves, but placing limits on how much consumers can buy. According to NBC News, Kroger, Publix, H-E-B and others are hoping that putting limits in place now can prevent the sight of completely empty shelves that defined the first panicked days of the pandemic. 

The list of items with purchase limits should be instantly familiar to anyone who struggled to find these essentials back in march. They include things like cleaning supplies, paper towels, and—of course— toilet paper. Some stores like Wegmans have added items like napkins to the list, while Tops has told its customers not to buy an infinite amount of freezer or trash bags. 

The goal isn't to make your life harder or impinge on your personal freedoms, but to ensure that their stock goes to the greatest number of customers as possible. "What we are trying to do is to make sure that we don't have hoarding," Scott McClelland, H-E-B Food and Drug president Scott McClelland told NBC News. "One of the things that we found in particular with the recent run on paper goods is that we want to be able to spread it as far as we can, amongst as many shoppers as possible."

While paper and cleaning products were certainly the most visibly absent products in the early spring, other foods may face shortages and/or limits in the months ahead if past precedent is any indication. Meat briefly proved hard to come by at a time when Covid-19 cases were shutting plants down, and plenty of other supply chains have been thrown into disarray over the course of the year. That may explain why Walmart president and CEO John Furner predicted they'd "still see some stress in things like jelly, bacon and breakfast foods" on a recent earnings call. 

If there's any consolation, it's that grocers can apply the lessons they've learned over the past nine months to better handle another chaotic period. In addition to stocking up well ahead of time, imposing these sorts of limits before supply chains get crushed could at least help these commodities stick around on shelves for longer. 

"When the initial onset of Covid-19 came, there was no manual to go to and so we were having to figure out processes and policy as we went," McClelland said. "So, we now have something to fall back upon."

Of course, combining a pandemic with an already-busy holiday season could make for further complications, but the hope is that some patience and planning on the part of both businesses and customers can make the next few months a little more bearable. Whether us shoppers manage to remain rational, however, remains to be seen.