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Supply Chain Professor Explains Empty Shelves, Lack of Medical Supplies

Despite recent shortages of consumer products and health care equipment, Patrick Penfield says the supply chain is strong and items will be back in stock soon.

Patrick Penfield speaks at a podium
Patrick Penfield at the presentation of the IMPRESS Goodman Cup, awarded to Whitman students who have accumulated the most points for extracurricular activities.

Shoppers in Central New York and across much of the country are greeted over and over again with the same sight when they go to the grocery store—rows of empty shelves. For weeks, items like toilet paper, tissues, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and chicken have been missing from store shelves.

“People are panic buying. They’re trying to alleviate their nerves by buying more to protect their families and themselves. The problem is that demand is so much more than manufacturers thought,” says Patrick Penfield, a professor of practice in supply chain management at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management .

Which hoarded item surprised Penfield the most? “Toilet paper,” he says. “That shocked me. I’ve never seen that before.”

There is hope on the horizon though, says Penfield. The initial surge of demand has gone down, and Penfield is hopeful that store shelves still be stocked again by the end of the month. “The supply chain is intact. It will just take time to restock.”

Although American consumers may feel burdened or experience inconvenience traveling to several stores to find the products they need, the larger issue is the lack of medical supplies that hospitals desperately need to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

The lack of coordination between the federal government and supply chain experts has sent individual states scrambling to get equipment—like ventilators and masks—that they desperately need. Many are acquiring their own resources, which has led to increased competition and higher prices.

“I’m surprised there was not a plan in place. It’s short-sighted,” says Penfield.

Still, it’s difficult to determine how much each state needs with such a fast moving, contagious disease. “States are stocking up based on what they think the surge will be,” says Penfield. “That’s not a bad approach, but it could cause shortages. In general, hospitals don’t stock for surge, they stock based on the past. But if you’re a state, that’s all you really can do.”

Lisa Maresca

This story was published on .

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