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Shoppers Scramble as Historic Blizzards Bears Down

Anxious consumers braced for the Northeast blizzard, dealing with canceled flights, empty supermarket shelves, and pricey ride-share services

With a potentially historic blizzard barreling down on the Northeast, consumers are caught in a bind, left without wings, wheels, and some items at Whole Foods (and other stores).

Some are busy trying to fix canceled flights. And those hunkering down are hitting the stores and emptying out supplies.

Shoppers said they weren't "hoarding," per se, just making sure they got in their regular grocery run. And then picking up a few extra items, just in case.

"We needed a few of the essentials anyway," said Danny Burkeman, a 35-year-old Long Island-based rabbi who went to the supermarket last night in advance of the storm. "But then it's hard not to get swept up in the panic-buying mentality." Shoppers ahead of him had reduced a pallet-load of water bottles down to one last packet.
Elsewhere shoppers in the Tri-State area left some supermarket shelves bare. Overnight, a Stop & Shop in Carlstadt, New Jersey ran out of milk. Only a few loaves of bread were left on the shelves. At a Whole Foods in Brooklyn, shoppers reported some items were gone, like lettuce, and slices of $4.95 pizza.

"Most people feel like they're going to be inside for a day or two and want to make sure they've got everything they need," said Whole Foods spokesman Michael Sinatra. He said Whole Foods stores in the Northeast had seen increased volume and demand for numerous staples, from bread to milk to produce and deli items.

By Monday morning stores had received deliveries and replenished key supplies. But people rushing out for last-minute supplies on Monday faced longer lines and dwindling supplies that might not be restocked during the blizzard. At a Trader Joe's in Brooklyn, a line wrapped around the corner and was 40 people long at one point.

Shoppers queue outside a Trader Joe's at Court Street and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn on Monday, January 26th.Elizabeth Hand

Transportation woes

If the cupboards are bare, so too will be the tarmacs. Airlines canceled over 4,360 flights on Monday and Tuesday. If you have a ticket for Monday, it may already be canceled. All Tuesday's flights might be grounded at three of New York's major airports. Carriers waved ticket change fees for customers flying through the Northeast, with most allowing one itinerary change for travel January 26 and 27 without a fee. Some required the new travel to occur by January 30th.

The airlines recommend travelers call to make any arrangements but some fliers reported hold times in excess of an hour. As is the norm, customers tweeted direct pleas for assistance to airlines' twitter accounts, with the airlines replying back an hour or more later that they would help. If it wasn't necessarily faster than the phone it at least had the benefit of not waiting on hold.

Read more: Officials Order Travel Bans as Historic Northeast Blizzard Nears

Those trying to get through the storm by wheel instead of air may turn to popular ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft. These services use "surge pricing" during periods of high demand, such as New Year's Eve.

Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson said its surge pricing will continue to be capped at 200 percent, "to keep Lyft affordable for passengers." Wilson also said drivers had been told they should only drive if they feel its safe to do so.

In an email to customers, Uber said prices during the storm in New York City will not be more than 2.8 times the normal fare. Last year it reached an agreement with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to cap surge pricing during disasters and state of emergencies and donate all profits during that time to the American Red Cross. The formula is based on making a list of the past 60 days of prices and striking the highest three non-emergency day prices.