AUSTIN, Texas – Today, it is a very common sight: long lines, empty shelves and days of waiting for the toilet paper to return. But how fears surrounding the coronavirus expelling essential items from the shelves, two students from the University of Texas have an idea to help.
Rithwik Pattikonda and Darshan Bhatta, from the second and third year of computer science education, recently launched InStok.org, a website created to check stocks at major stores like Target and CVS and inform users where they can find the items they need.
Pattikonda said he came up with the idea when he saw his parents having a hard time finding essential items.
"Initially, I saw that my parents were really struggling to find certain types of grocery items," he said. "And when I saw the news, I noticed that the panic was much more widespread."
Pattikonda and Bhatta spent almost a week coding the site from scratch. It works by checking online inventories for major chain stores, including Target, CVS and Walgreens, and aggregating them in one place. Users can enter their zip code, the item they want and see which stores have it in stock. You can even compare prices and ask the site to send alerts when items are available. The site is free, and does not require an account to sign up.
While it is definitely helpful in avoiding the frustration of another "exhausted" signal, Pattikonda said he hopes it will prevent people from doing unnecessary shopping trips at a time when the majority of the population must distance themselves socially.
"Instead of going to seven or eight stores, they can choose one or two stores and get their items," he said.
The students launched the website on Tuesday and has already received 70,000 visitors. Pattikonda himself used it to find some waffles.
"I think the whole need for this product is really what carries it," he said. "All we did was post to two subreddits and, from there, they were organized because of how much people need it."
Although built outside of Texas, the site is good for use anywhere, as long as you provide your location. Students have already received thousands of positive comments from users on Reddit and other social media, who say the site has helped them find scarce products.
Although the site is definitely useful, Pattikonda wants to emphasize that it is not perfect. Some stores update their online inventory automatically, others do it in the morning and at night, when employees take physical inventory from the shelves.
"At the end of the day, we are just aggregating this information from the stores' websites," he said.
Nielsen data shows that the sale of many household items and cleaning supplies has skyrocketed compared to that period last year. During the first week of March, for example, Americans bought 470% more hand sanitizer compared to the same week last year. Other high-demand items include beans, powdered milk and alcohol.
At the moment, with UT closed for the semester, Pattikonda and Bhatta have returned to their parents' homes near Dallas and will resume online classes on Monday. They said they hope to be able to keep the site up and running once the course is over, but until then, they want to encourage people to stay calm and not buy more than necessary.
"You really should only buy what you need," he said. "Especially because these elderly people and other disadvantaged people will have a hard time finding things."