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Coronavirus Inspires Doomsday-Style Wellness Shopping

"It's truly apocalyptic": Consumers are racing to stockpile hand sanitizers and supplements, leaving store shelves empty.

Coronavirus panic seems to be good for at least one thing: sales of wellness products.

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side this week, CVS, Duane Reade and Bed, Bath and Beyond stores looked ransacked. A visit to Harmon Face Values on upper Broadway the night of March 4 revealed bare shelves where Tylenol, Emergin-C and Zicam had once laid. The store had run out of Lysol sprays and Clorox wipes over the weekend, an employee said.

As anxious U.S. consumers race to buy emergency supplies ahead of an impending COVD-19 outbreak, retailers are selling out of items like hand sanitizers and immune-boosting supplements faster than they can restock. A nationwide shortage of Purell has turned the workaday hand sanitizer into a luxury good, with third-party sellers on Amazon and Ebay marking up its typically humble prices by significant amounts. A recent search yielded a two-pack of the brand’s 12-oz. pump bottles for $99.99.

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Some wellness brands are seeing unprecedented year-over-year and week-over-week sales gains. EO Products, a California-based company that makes natural hand sanitizers, saw web site sales for its Everyone brand sanitizers increase 1,300 percent in the last week. Demand from retailers has quadrupled since this time last year, said Tom Feegel, president of EO Products.

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“Whether there is a flu or any type of illness outbreak, it definitely drives a ‘flight to wellness,’” said Susan Roddy, managing director of the consumer, food and retail group at Houlihan Lokey. “Consumer demand for preventative and self-care products escalates across all demographics.”

Last week, as news of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. started to break, shoppers began to stock up on prevention and emergency supplies.

On its fourth-quarter earnings call Tuesday, Target Corp. chief executive officer Brian Cornell noted recent “aggressive shopping” behavior as consumers stockpile food and household essentials.

In a statement to WWD, a spokesperson for CVS noted that the drug chain is “experiencing higher consumer demand of select products” that “may cause temporary shortages…at some stores” and is working with suppliers to restock “as quickly as possible.”

On The Vitamin Shoppe’s web site, searches for hand sanitizer are up 16,000 percent. The chain is completely sold out of hand sanitizer online, but said limited quantities are still available at “some stores.”

With the extensive media attention surrounding COVID-19, some say the virus seems to be driving an outsize consumer response compared to past global pandemics.

“We were around for H1N1 and SARS,” said EO Products’ Feegel. “[COVID-19] is unique because the news is traveling much faster and a lot more outlets [are covering] it.”

The media attention has certainly gotten to consumers.

“I spent $5.99 a piece on tiny Purell bottles at my local pharmacy — and Lysol and Clorox wipes,” said Jillian Ruffo, a 29-year-old Manhattan-based copywriter. “They had just gotten a new shipment in and people were taking stuff straight out of the shipping boxes.”

At Target in Jersey City over the weekend, 30-year-old lawyer Rebecca Salk and her husband were looking to stock up on food, medicine and household supplies, but were met with mostly bare shelves. Salk managed to find Emergin-C, peanut butter and pasta sauce, but ended up “buying a bunch of stuff online because the store was empty.” She estimated that she spent $150 more at Amazon and Boxed than she typically would on an average week.

Madeleine Fawcett, a 36-year-old Brooklyn-based publicist, told WWD on Wednesday that her mother and husband had “ransacked all the Brooklyn grocery stores and Home Depot” for Purell, Lysol and bleach. Fawcett, who has two young children, referred to the stockpiling as “doomsday prepping,” and the empty store shelves as “truly apocalyptic.”

With Purell prices ratcheted up to exorbitant levels on Amazon, consumers are scrambling for alternative brands. Fawcett purchased five Squeaky Clean hand-sanitizers, $6; from influencer Katie Sturino’s line Megababe — “as many as Katie would let me,” she said.

At EO, sales have been steadily increasing for the past month, and significantly spiked last week. “It’s hard to describe the rate of growth because the numbers are so big [and] so fast,” said Feegel. By the end of January, sales of the Everyone brand’s hand sanitizers were up 240 percent year-over-year, but by the week ending March 3, that number had quadrupled.

Travel-size hand sanitizers are completely selling out, said Feegel, and stationary bottles sized from 8 to 32 oz. are “selling at very high rates.” The brand is in near constant communication with retailers, talking “every 24 to 48 hours” with buyers it might normally only communicate with once a month.

Retailer demand is exponentially higher than normal. “It’s outside the scope of normal procurement and forecasting — they’re clearly trying to meet a massive increase in demand on their side,” said Feegal. “We’ve heard the same story from Walmart, Target and Whole Foods across the board.”

A regional grocery chain recently ordered nearly 2,000 bins that hold several hundred bottles of EO’s hand sanitizers. “We fill them and ship them complete and ready to go on the floor,” said Feegel. “A normal order would be in the low hundreds.”

It is not just hand sanitizers that are experiencing a surge in demand.

Spate, a company that analyzes online search data to identify consumer trends, has seen a year-over-year spike in searches for natural immune-boosting supplements. Searches for elderberry are up 52.4 percent, vitamin C is up 25 percent, Echinacea is up 13.1 percent and zinc grew 7.7 percent.

At The Vitamin Shoppe, those products are selling at a faster clip than usual, said ceo Sharon Leite, who noted that oregano oil, olive leaf, probiotics and the homeopathic product Oscilloccinum have also been top sellers.

“We’ve seen a real uptick in customers reaching out to us to help them with immune support, [beginning] last weekend,” said Leite. “When the case in Washington was relayed in the media — that’s when we started seeing strong interest.”

The retailer has also rushed to create new content for its website, “to make sure customers are getting the right facts.” While the company has sold out of all its hand-sanitizers online, it has published an article with instructions on how to make one’s own. “We want to be seen as a place where people can come for facts,” said Leite. “There’s so much bad information out there, and hand-washing is really important.”

The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 could continue to fuel apocalypse-style shopping sprees, especially as the virus spreads across the U.S. In New York, 22 cases have been recorded across the state, according to an ABC News report on Thursday.

At EO, Feegel is preparing for the hand-sanitizer demand to continue. At the company’s manufacturing facilities in California, capacity has increased 150 percent year-over-year. “Check back with me in a week — it could be greater than that,” he said. “We’re not sure what’s happening [with the spread of COVID-19], and that’s what’s different about this — [sales] could double again this quarter.”