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Why This One Grocery Shopping Mistake Is Bad for Everyone—Including You

What seems like a smart approach amid the coronavirus pandemic isn't so great for grocers, fellow shoppers, and you.
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The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best of humanity, and sadly, also some of the worst.

News coverage in the earliest days of the public health crisis came with images of empty grocery shelves and shoppers purchasing insane amounts of toilet paper that went viral almost as quickly as COVID-19. Panicked shopping amid self-quarantining and social distancing initially turned to unnecessary hoarding, but that was one viral trend that, thankfully abated.

But as grocers restocked shelves to deal with increased demand, there is another shopping trend that, turns out, is not the smartest approach: bulk buying. A recent survey found that 42% of shoppers say they plan to keep on buying goods in bulk until the COVID-19 pandemic is officially over. Another 64% said they'll keep doing that even after the pandemic is over. But while it may seem counterintuitive, buying in bulk actually presents more challenges for grocers, fellow shoppers, and home kitchen managers alike, and for a bunch of reasons. (Related: The Top 10 Worst Foods to Buy in Bulk Right Now.)

Buying in bulk and clearing out a store's inventory of any particular item drives up its prices. It's as simple as supply and demand, and if bulk buyers stock up on, say, toilet paper, the demand goes up and the supply goes down. Hoarding an essential item not only flouts a basic social contract, but the hoarder is left with a storage problem of the massive amount of whatever item they bought in bulk.

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This leads us to basic home economics, or, the effective management of the items you are buying in bulk. The Simpson's made fun of this idea when Marge went to a fictional big-box retailer and considered a gallon jug of nutmeg. "That's a good price on nutmeg," she exclaimed, but, of course, the joke is, who needs a gallon of nutmeg? Purchasing in bulk may seem like it makes good sense in the short term, but as many wise shoppers can speak from experience, long-term supplies of some food items often end up being thrown out from spoiling. (Related: This Grocery Chain's Sales are Skyrocketing Right Now)

Grocery stores took drastic measures to ensure that shelves aren't suddenly completely cleared out by a handful of selfish people. Some grocery store chains even brought in off-duty police officers and private security guards to help manage crowded aisles, long lines, and jammed parking lots during the coronavirus outbreak.

The best approach for shopping during the pandemic? Purchase what you expect to consume in the following week. Not only will your items be fresher, but your pantry and refrigerator will be less packed, and grocery prices will not continue to surge. As the U.S.'s supply chain has caught up with the sudden sharp spike in grocery sales, once barren shelves are returning to their normal, natural state.  In the meantime, don't hoard products of any sort. Remember, we are all in this together!

Eat This, Not That! is constantly monitoring the latest food news as it relates to COVID-19 in order to keep you healthy, safe, and informed (and answer your most urgent questions). Here are the precautions you should be taking at the grocery store, the foods you should have on hand, the meal delivery services and restaurant chains offering takeout you need to know about, and ways you can help support those in need. We will continue to update these as new information develops. Click here for all of our COVID-19 coverage, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date.

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