Toilet paper on shelf

Last week, toilet paper shelves were nearly empty at Kearney's Walmart. 

KEARNEY — Greg Benson ran an errand for his wife last weekend. Marci asked him to buy pork and beans, but when he arrived at Walmart, there wasn’t a can of beans to be had.

And the vinegar was sold out.

Across Second Avenue at Hy-Vee, the situation was similar. In fact, at most all grocery stores, products disappeared and shelves went bare as customers stockpiled food and supplies as if they were preparing for the worst blizzard of their lives.

Hand sanitizer, produce, bread and other products were gone — and as the stores have discovered, they’re difficult to restock.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the United States into a nation of haves and have-nots. People who loaded up on toilet paper have it, and those who didn’t don’t — and they could be waiting awhile before the supply chain catches up.

Benson, who went home without the pork and beans his wife wanted, knows about supply chains.

A former materials manager for the Eaton Corp., Benson coordinates the supply chain management program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. About 80 students are enrolled at any given time and 100 percent land jobs in that field. Frequently, the UNK students are hired before they graduate with starting pay of $55,000 to $60,000.

Benson’s students are sought after because the modern economy is comprised of thousands of companies linked by supply chains that must be managed, or something like the empty shelves at food stores will happen.

“The supply chain,” Benson said, “fundamentally is dependent upon the ability to forecast demand. When things are running well, things work well. When there is a significant disruption, it changes consumer behavior, as to what they buy and how they buy it.”

With the coronavirus creeping across the U.S., some consumers were compelled to stock up.

Some bought six months worth of toilet paper.

That hurried buying created a toilet paper shortage, said Benson, because the companies up and down the supply chain — wood pulp suppliers, mills, packaging and shipping companies — rely upon forecasts. If Americans bought 100 million rolls of toilet paper in 2019, companies geared up and produced 100 million rolls, not knowing that demand in 2020 might double that of the prior year.

As Benson explained, the current high demand for toilet paper and other popular pandemic products have depleted the pipeline, and it will take time before the supply chain can refill the void.

Chad Henning understands supply chain management. His family’s Kearney-based company, Cash-Wa Distributing, supplies food and many related products to restaurants, nursing homes and schools across the Midwest.

He said consumers established a pattern during the past several years, but what was normal then isn’t today. Because of coronavirus, people mostly are dining at home. Schools and their cafeterias are closed.

Food distributors like Cash-Wa and its vendors, along with grocers, could not have anticipated the drastic changes COVID-19 would cause, Henning said.

“The supply chain is invisible and under the radar to people,” he said. “They just show up at the store or the restaurant and think the food will be there. If anything, this pandemic shows the world how valuable the supply chain is.”

Supplying people’s food necessities is more than a business among distribution companies like Cash-Wa, Henning said. He said it’s more like a mission and commitment. “We’re networking with other distributors, and even competitors, about how to handle this. The situation is changing hour by hour, that’s for sure. There’s nothing but speculation about how long it’s going to last.”

Tony Seevers, the manager at Boogaarts Food Store, 1615 Second Ave., said the multiple companies that bring food to Kearney’s stores is like a metal chain that’s only as strong as its weakest link.

“We are all interdependent on each other. I’m only as strong as my warehouse, and the warehouse is only as strong as the manufacturers.”

Seevers said it’s been challenging keeping his shelves stocked. “With the quantity that people are buying things, we’re out of things.”

Seevers heard that Gov. Pete Ricketts is encouraging Nebraskans not to overbuy, but instead bring home just a week’s worth of groceries.

In his 38 years in the grocery business, Seevers said he’s not experienced anything like the coronavirus. “This is my first pandemic.”

Benson, the supply chain instructor who couldn’t find pork and beans, said COVID-19 has exposed flaws in the global supply chain. If just one link in the chain breaks, it can bring down the rest, especially because so many industries are so careful not to overproduce their products.

Lacking a surplus, there’s nothing to refill the pipeline if panic buying empties it, he said.

Another flaw, U.S. consumers now are dependent on overseas suppliers because so many companies have closed their domestic factories and now have their products manufactured outside the U.S.

A more disconcerting fact, he said, is that the United States now depends so heavily on foreign nations for pharmaceutical products. Benson said China and India produce about 90 percent of the medicine Americans use.

“Suppose China decides not to ship those pharmaceuticals to the U.S., then what do you do?” he said.

Modern car manufacturing illustrates the global interconnectedness of companies, said Benson. “If you look at the supply chain, there is a company mining iron ore. They sell it to a steel producer. And then it’s sold to a company that turns the steel into engine valves. Another company makes engines. And eventually the car is shipped to the dealer. But it just takes one interruption, and it can have a domino effect. If I can’t get that one part, I can’t build the finished product.”

Henning said he’s angered when he sees how some companies and individuals are profiting from the pandemic, “like the guy who bought $17,000 of hand sanitizer” and is selling it out of his garage.

The pandemic also brings the good out in people, Henning said. “In dark times like this, what hits home is how many people go out of their way to help someone else. It’s great to see.”