Spending

Costco, Target, and other stores now have limits on what you can buy — here's what you need to know

Twenty/20

To prevent shoppers from hoarding, some grocery stores are implementing purchase limits so each shopper can only buy a certain amount of in-demand products, such as toilet paper or disinfectant wipes

This might panic some shoppers, but purchase limits are a good thing, says Karan Girotra, a professor of operations, technology and information management at Cornell University. "It's about making sure more people have enough of what they need, rather than some people having some of what they need," he says. 

Why stores are limiting how much you can buy

A common misconception is that stores are implementing purchase limits because America is running out of certain products. That isn't true, Girotra says: "If anything we are a food surplus country, with extra food, more than what we need." 

Stores are putting purchase limits on products because distributors are putting limits on stores, Girotra explains. "It goes all the way up the supply chain," he says. "It's not just stores [enforcing purchase limits], it's distributors doing it to the stores, and the producer doing it to different distributors." 

Because stores are only allowed to acquire a certain amount of stock at a time, they are trying to guide shoppers away from hoarding essentials. Some of the products you're more likely to see purchasing limits on include toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer, says consumer saving expert Andrea Woroch. 

This is because those products have experienced some of the biggest upticks in sales. As of last week, toilet paper sales had increased 212.7% from the previous year, according to data from a Nielsen representative. Paper towel sales increased 154.4%, and hand sanitizer sales increased 207.5%.

It's about making sure more people have enough of what they need, rather than some people having some of what they need.
Karan Girotra
professor of operations, technology and information management at Cornell University

Woroch agrees that the limits could keep people from buying months' worth of paper towels when a couple weeks' supply would do. But shoppers should prepare themselves for some inconveniences, she warns.

"Target was out of large packages of baby wipes when I went last week, and I was only allowed to purchase one, single pack of baby wipes," Woroch says. "Considering I was down to my last pack, I had to go back to the store just to pick up one more single pack, and will have to go back again tomorrow for another." 

And, she says, "my sister had to wait in line for two hours to go to Trader Joe's in Santa Barbara for milk, which had a limit of two per person."

Costco, Target, and other retailers enforcing purchase limits

Many major retailers are limiting essential purchases, although the exact products they are limiting and how many you can buy might depend on the location. 

Here's what some major chains are doing:

Before you head to the store, call ahead or check the store's website to see what products they are limiting. To ensure you don't spend more than you intend to, make a list of what you want, then make a list of back-up groceries, or products you can buy if they are out of what you want. For example, if your grocery store is out of cow's milk, you can buy some powdered or shelf-stable milk.

If they are out of gallons of juice, trying finding juice concentrate. 

Remember that you only need one to two weeks of supply. If people adhere to the purchase limits, there will be "better outcomes for all of us," Girotra says. "You can always go back and get things." 

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