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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Sorry, Charley, but Sunshine State supermarkets were prepared to take whatever you could dish out on Friday.
As the Category 4 hurricane gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico, calls to operators in the path of the storm found them coping with consumers frantically buying water, milk, flashlights, batteries, and other storm essentials, while at the same time closing units and preparing their facilities to survive the maelstrom.
"We've had quite a bit of panic buying -- not only at supermarkets, but also at the home improvement stores," Joanne Gage, v.p., advertising and marketing at Winn-Dixie Stores here told Progressive Grocer. "Everybody is poised and ready, and at this point you've sold all that you can, and it's a matter of getting through it and reopening and taking stock of everything."
As of 2:00 p.m. Friday, Winn-Dixie had closed approximately 30 stores, mostly along the West Coast of Florida and a few in South Florida, and more were scheduled to close as the day went on. "In many cases it has been mandatory that the stores close," Gage said. "A lot of the bridges are closing. We have to consider the safety of our employees, and so many people have to cross bridges to get home. Those things all come into play."
"At Food Lion we began tracking Bonnie and Charley early this week," Jeff Lowrance, corporate communications manager at Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, said in an interview. "For stores that appear to be in the projected path of the storms, we've taken steps to ensure that they have adequate supplies of water, batteries, canned goods, and other needed items. We are also making ready refrigerated trailers, generators, and other equipment that would be needed in the event of power outages."
Winn-Dixie was also making contingency plans. "We can do our best to bring in supplies where the roads are open," Gage said, "but a lot of our divisions have been hit, and it depends what the roads are like getting to and from the distribution centers."
Even Wal-Mart was not immune from the storm. "We do have many stores that are closed or are in the process of closing," Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. told Progressive Grocer. "Obviously our top priority is safety. We've been working very closely with our stores over the last few days to get supplies out which our customers are looking for, including water, batteries, flashlights, and first aid kits."
Stores that were expected to be closed posted signs on their doors to alert customers. "We're basically following the advice of the National Weather Service," Weber said. "When they say everybody should be off the roads, that includes us."
Wal-Mart also already had contingency plans in place for after Charley passed by. "We'll focus a lot on providing water, but cleaning supplies are also something that is very important to our customers, including disinfectant and bleach," said Weber.