En español | We're all scrambling to stock up on masks, gloves, disinfectant, toilet paper, paper towels and other pandemic essentials. Gone are the days when you could do a one-stop-shop and get everything you need, at least for now. And if you're avoiding stores to stay safe, that adds another level of difficulty to an already-challenging shopping situation.
Major retailer websites, including Target.com and Walmart.com, are sold out of many items. Even when they restock, essentials can come and go in a flash. Although it appears to be getting easier to find many items on Amazon.com, it can take weeks to get your order. For example, I found disinfecting wipes that don't arrive until mid-June.
According to a new survey by CommerceHub, 75 percent of respondents overall said they had searched for an item online and found that it was out of stock. Among Amazon Prime members, 80 percent said that items they were looking to purchase online have been out of stock and that expected or promised delivery dates have impacted their purchase decisions for essentials.
The good news is coronavirus supplies are hiding everywhere. It's like Whac-A-Mole shopping out there, with products constantly popping up and then disappearing and reappearing somewhere else — sometimes in surprising places. Clothing chains, for example, are selling masks online and beauty-supply sites are hawking hand sanitizers. The bottom line: You can probably find everything you need but you'll need to shop around, and act fast.
Here are some websites that you might not think to check, plus a few tips on getting the most for your money while avoiding rip-offs.
Toilet paper and paper towels
I haven't been able to buy TP at my supermarket for weeks, but I've purchased it at Home Depot and Walgreens. Unfortunately, the websites of these retailers and others, including Costco and Walmart, only offer essential paper supplies for in-store purchases in many cases. My advice: If you're avoiding stores, ask a neighbor to pick up these items while they're out shopping around, or check out Boxed, an online warehouse store. Boxed has great deals on bulk paper products and lots of lots of other supplies. I've also seen bulk orders available from Staples.
Hand sanitizers, wipes and disinfectants
I've found these items at Boxed, Paper Source, MedZone and beauty-supply sites Sally Beauty and Ulta. If you're willing to buy in bulk and split a box with a few friends or family members, check out RestaurantSupply.com or office-supply sites like Staples. Also check international markets. In my area, I found plenty of hand sanitizer at a local Asian market called Hmart.
It's getting a lot easier to find them on Amazon but most of them are those disposable blue-and-white ones. Why walk around looking like you work in a hospital when you can wear an eco-friendly reusable mask that suits your personality? You might be surprised to know that Vistaprint carries some nice masks with a “replaceable nanofilter system,” and 10 percent of your purchase goes to supporting small businesses. Also check Etsy and clothing retailers like JCrew. I even found masks at Avocado, a mattress website.
If your local grocery stores are low on certain items, such as eggs, meat and poultry, and/or you're having trouble getting a delivery time from Instacart or another service, check the websites of alternative grocery stores like Aldi and international markets, which may deliver fresh foods in your area. I checked Hmart for chicken and found plenty available with local delivery.
Also, consider signing up for a community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription to get fresh local food and support local farmers. The website LocalHarvest lists 7,000 CSAs, which are subscription services that give you regular deliveries of fresh produce, meat, eggs or dairy items. In response to coronavirus-related supply issues, some CSAs are now expanding their offerings with bread, prepared foods and pantry items, according to Guillermo Payet, president of LocalHarvest. In the past, CSAs sent their goods to local drop-off points where you had to pick up your order, but the majority are now offering home delivery, says Payet.
Another option: Imperfect Foods, which specializes in blemished “ugly” produce that might otherwise go to waste, ships boxed orders to customers weekly.
Tips for shopping online during the pandemic
• Act fast. I missed out on a reasonably priced box of disposable gloves at Staples.com because I hesitated for a few hours while I looked around for a better deal. This is one time when it pays to be quick on the trigger. Don't get lulled into thinking that because the item is in stock one minute that it will be there the next.
• Go for BOPIS. That stands for “buy online, pickup in store.” Walmart and other major retailers offer curbside pick-up on many items so you don't even have to get out of your vehicle.
• Check seller ratings. There are lots of supplies on Amazon and eBay but you may have to buy from small, independent and/or overseas sellers. Always check a seller's reviews and ratings. On eBay, my rule of thumb is 98 percent or higher. On Amazon, I always read through the reviews and ratings, and then check Fakespot.com. The website rates the quality of seller and product reviews so you know which 4- and 5-star ratings you can trust and sidestep the problem of fake reviews. Also, always read return policies and shipping costs and times, which could be weeks out. On Amazon, your best bet is to look for items marked “ships from and sold by Amazon.com."
• Avoid coronavirus rip-offs. For starters, don't use links from unsolicited emails, texts and social media ads to buy supplies. Even if they look like they're from a major retailer, they could lead you to a scam site. If you want to shop online from, say, Walmart, go directly to the retailer's website — and watch out for misspellings, which could send you right into the hands of cyberthieves. When you get to the checkout page, look at your browser to make sure the web address starts with “https” and includes a lock icon. You can get more tips on protecting yourself and information on the latest scams from AARP and the Better Business Bureau.
Lisa Lee Freeman, cohost of the Hot Shopping Tips podcast, was founder and editor in chief of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports and an investigative reporter for the Dr. Oz Show.