ROCKFORD — Hard to find household products and perishables are once again filling up grocery store shelves in Rockford.
It was a different sight in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation and consumers found themselves scrambling to purchase everyday items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Rockford area retailers said last year caught everyone by surprise. The drastic spike in demand forced them to place limits on how many high-demand items customers could purchase as manufacturers struggled to keep pace.
Today, store owners say things have settled down and are returning back to normal.
Schnucks has been in Winnebago County since 1998 and has six local grocery store locations.
“When we were experiencing unprecedented customer levels, we were saying it was like a snow scare and holiday wrapped into one,” said spokesperson Paul Simon. “That is certainly not the case anymore.”
Stores are not completely back to pre-COVID levels, Simon said, but they have been trending that direction for months now.
Because many people are still working remotely and students are virtual, some customers are making more visits than typical or purchasing more.
During the pandemic’s early days, Simon said Schnucks had several buying limits.
They have since pulled back. The only limit that remains is on disinfectant wipes, two per customer.
If customers have noticed a decrease in assortment or variety, Simon said it could very well be the supplier wasn’t able to get the item, or the item isn’t in demand anymore.
“We’re constantly evaluating what we’re offering our customers, and if that has happened, can’t say for sure, it’s not related to the pandemic,” he said. “It’s just us evaluating what our customers seem to be buying and what options they want.
“We do hear from consumers about products, but I think they understand. Our shelves currently are in really good stock. If we don’t have one item, we’re going to have the item in another brand.”
One significant change since last year is more customers are taking advantage of delivery and curbside pickup options, Simon said.
“We’re always looking at the way we go about business, and we’re always looking to improve on that,” he said. “COVID has taught us many things. Some of those things will become best practices, and we will continue to do in the future.”
Woodman’s Market in Rockford has also been keeping shelves stocked.
“Everything this year has calmed down and is pretty much back to normal,” said store manager Scott Leeder.
Like stores nationwide, Woodman’s placed limits on some consumer purchases, but those restrictions have been lifted.
“We pulled back as the manufacturers ramped up production,” Leeder said.
Occasionally, there might be a shortage on a certain product but “for the most part, manufacturers have caught up and everything seems to be running pretty normal,” he said.
Safety measures such as required masks, social distancing and Plexiglass are still in place, Leeder said, until the state says otherwise.
“It’s been a wild year, but our employees have done an outstanding job,” he said.
Aldi declined an interview, but offered a statement saying their stores, including in Rockford, have adapted quickly to the changes brought on by the pandemic.
“Customer demand has shifted faster than ever throughout this pandemic, and we are proud of how quickly ALDI has been able to adapt,” the grocer said in its statement. “No matter where and how customers shop, we are committed to providing them the products they want at the lowest possible prices.”
The chain was able to accelerate its curbside pickup rollout and by the end of 2021 it will be available at more than 1,200 ALDI stores nationwide. The location at 6650 E. State St. currently offers curbside.
Target also declined an interview but shared the company’s most recent released earnings report. It’s also not their policy to disclose information on a specific store or regional level, said spokesperson Brian Harper.
According to its March report, Target’s 2020 sales growth of more than $15 billion was greater than the company’s total sales growth over the prior 11 years. Digital sales grew by nearly $10 billion in 2020, driven by 235% growth in the company’s same-day services.
“Following years of investment to build a durable, scalable and sustainable business model, we saw record growth in 2020, as our guests turned to Target to safely provide for their families throughout the pandemic,” said Brian Cornell, chairman and chief executive officer of Target Corporation, in a news release.
“With the strength of our unique, multicategory assortment and the flexibility we offer through our reliable and convenient fulfillment options, we gained nearly $9 billion in market share in 2020, and grew our revenue by $15 billion, which is more than the 11 prior years combined. As we look ahead to 2021 and beyond, we see continued opportunity to invest in our business and our team, building on the strong foundation we’ve established to drive market share gains and deliver profitable growth for years to come.”
Walmart, Valli’s Produce and Meijer didn’t respond by deadline.