Customers are swarming big chain stores as a way to avoid boredom or to buy entirely non-essential items, further exposing themselves and others to the coronavirus, employees at Lowe's, Office Depot, Sherwin-Williams, and Best Buy tell Motherboard.
While workers at stores that have been deemed "essential" or continue to remain open have limited options for staying out of the busy stores, many customers are making conscious, deliberate decisions to enter crowded spaces with dwindling cleaning supplies, sometimes in defiance of state pleas to remain inside their homes as much as possible.
"The public is treating this like a vacation and shopping for non-essentials like never before seen," a Lowe's employee told Motherboard. "The lines are longer than anyone has seen in years. No social distancing, no precautions whatsoever."
Motherboard granted multiple employees from Lowe's, Office Depot, Sherwin-Williams, and Best Buy anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to the press. In the last week, Motherboard has spoken to many retail store employees about how they have been asked to use their paid time off if they fear contracting the virus; some employees have told us they have quit their jobs to avoid putting themselves at risk.
Experts have been saying for weeks that people should not gather in crowds both for their own safety and to avoid spreading coronavirus, which threatens to overtax a medical system with a finite capacity for treating the sick. If more people become so sick that they need to be hospitalized, that may mean frontline responders need to make choices such as who gets access to a ventilator and who doesn't. Customers who visit stores are at risk not only of catching the coronavirus themselves, but spreading to others which can then strain the healthcare system even further. Customers can spread the coronavirus without exhibiting symptoms, and U.S. healthcare workers are begging people to stay home.
"I liken these customers to the photos of the spring breakers on the beaches. But these are adults, who are smart enough to have a mortgage, but selfish enough to only care about themselves," one of the Lowe's employees told Motherboard.
Do you have internal emails showing how another company is dealing with the coronavirus? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox,OTR chat on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
Some visitors are simply browsing the stores and not buying anything, multiple workers said.
"The browsers were just trying to get out of the house. One family comprised of 6—4 kids and a dog—were browsing all departments. I saw them looking at patio furniture, then I saw them discussing custom kitchen cabinets," a Lowe's employee said. Several other workers said some customers were only visiting the store to get out of the house.
"[I] even had a mother and daughter tell one of my coworkers that they were bored and didn't want to be cooped up in the house!," an Office Depot employee told Motherboard. A second Office Depot employee also said some customers were just looking around the store.
Some of the people we spoke to work at stores that sell items that may be necessary for people who are quarantined in their homes. Lowe's sells hardware that can be used for urgent repairs, as well as cleaning supplies, for example. But many people are crowding stores to purchase non-essential products such as paint, sprinkler systems, bark mulch, grills, patio cushions, and gardening soil, according to multiple workers across the various stores. Multiple employees told Motherboard that customers explicitly said they were coming to the stores to purchase items for home projects rather than anything essential.
"Most people who have come in today have been for non-essential items such as craft & art supplies, office decorations, desk organizers. Silly things like that they truly don't need," one of the Office Depot employees said.
"Almost everyone coming in is making non-essential purchases. Specifically they are mentioning wanting to get projects done around the house while they are quarantined," a Sherwin-Williams employee said.
"I have seen zero essential items being sold. I only had one contractor come in for a hot water heater," a Lowe's worker added.
Anecdotally, some employees said that their stores are much more crowded than they ever were before the coronavirus pandemic, and some stores have seen daily sales that are much higher than normal. One Lowe's employee provided a screenshot of the total value of products sold for a day, and added, "That's $100,000 more than we should have done on a normal Monday."
"The public is treating this like a vacation and shopping for non-essentials like never before seen."
Other employees told Motherboard that many supplies that are considered "essential" are actually out of stock, meaning that there’s not too many "essential" products actually being sold.
"Most of the supplies that are truly 'essential' to this virus such as toilet paper, paper towels, bleach, hand sanitizer, Lysol sprays and wipes are off the shelves and Lowe's have been told we can no longer even order them because they are just not available due to the shortage nationwide," a Lowe's employee said.
An Office Depot employee said their company had a similar lack of stock of cleaning supplies.
Motherboard previously reported how Best Buy was working at "full capacity" despite the threat of the coronavirus. It since limited the number of customers allowed in a store at once and gave employees the option to not work and still be paid, and then closed stores entirely to customers. Before those recent changes, some customers were coming in to buy non-essential items, a Best Buy employee said.
"We were busy, just browsing, non-essentials, people buying stuff like TVs and hoverboards," the employee said. (Some customers may have needed certain items to help them work from home during the coronavirus.)
"[I] even had a mother and daughter tell one of my coworkers that they were bored and didn't want to be cooped up in the house!"
An Office Depot spokesperson told Motherboard in an email, "We are limiting store occupancy to a maximum of 25 people or less and enabling a six-foot distance requirement for all associates and customers, in support of the 'social distancing' recommendations of the CDC. We are also introducing curbside pickup at most locations for customers that prefer to have their online or mobile orders brought out to their cars instead of picking up inside the store."
When shown this statement, an Office Depot employee said, "In actuality there is no way to enforce 6 feet between customers and associates. The most we are away from customers is maybe 2 feet."
Lowe's slightly shortened its opening hours after employees told Motherboard they believed the store was staying open to try and maximize profit during a time of crisis. Lowe's did not respond to a request for comment.
"Please explain to me how bird feeders are essential for our survival?" one employee asked, mentioning that is what a customer came into their store to buy.