Coronavirus panic-buying: As supermarkets ration items, should customers be stockpiling?

Sabrina Barr
Residents wearing respiratory masks shop in a supermarket in small groups of 40 on 23 February 2020 in the Italian town of Casalpusterlengo amid the coronavirus outbreak: Getty Images

Since the coronavirus outbreak began in January, a rising number of cases around the world has led to an increase in panic and concern. ​

Worry has appeared more prevalent in recent days, following the prime minister’s announcement on Monday 23 March that the nation was to be placed in lockdown.

Fear has understandably begun shaping people’s behaviour; sales of hand sanitiser gel (recommended by the World Health Organisation as a preventative measure for the coronavirus) spiked 255 per cent in February as the Covid-19 outbreak spread.

Supermarkets including Tesco, Asda and Waitrose have implemented rationing of certain items and social distancing measures in response to customers panic-buying and stockpiling.

Boots confirmed with The Independent that a notable increase in hand sanitiser sales resulted in a limit of two purchases per customer, although the retailer said it does have stock available in its warehouses.

Ocado warned customers they are facing “exceptionally high demand” for delivery slots, while elsewhere around the world, it has been reported that items like toilet roll are also increasingly scarce as people buy in bulk.

But should you be stockpiling to prepare for self-isolation should you develop symptoms and be unable to leave the house for 14 days straight?

What are consumers stockpiling?

In addition to hand sanitiser, members of the British public are stockpiling other goods including food and medicines.

A number of American Twitter users have shared images of empty shelves at Costco supermarkets, seemingly due to fears over Covid-19.

And in the UK Ocado has warned customers of high demand. “More people than usual seem to be placing particularly large orders.

“As a result, delivery slots are selling out quicker than expected,” an email sent to customers read.

Ocado emphasised to The Independent that this was a result of a shortage of delivery slots as opposed to food products being in low supply.

But Bruno Monteyne, senior analyst at Bernstein and Tesco Asia supply chain director, has said that a major outbreak of the virus could “quickly lead to panic buying, empty shelves and food riots”.

“The objective isn’t to scaremonger. On the contrary: the industry has plans to deal with this,” Mr Monteyne said.

“Yes, it will be chaotic (and expect pictures of empty shelves), but the industry will reduce complexity to keep the country fed.”

Other businesses have reported seeing spikes in the buying of medicines and pharmaceutical goods. Shyam Morjaria, superintendent pharmacist at online pharmacy UK Meds, told The Independent there had been “an increase in purchases of cough and cold remedies, vitamins, hygiene products and face masks.

“Worried-well patients attempt to do everything within their means to protect themselves against the coronavirus outbreak”.

Earlier this month, several food giants signed an open letter published by the British Retail Consortium urging customers to be considerate when shopping.

“We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop,” the letter said.

“We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together.”

How are businesses responding to reports of stockpiling?

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) says retail companies have not been drastically affected as of yet.

“Disruption to supply chains has been limited, and the availability of products remains good,” Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC, told The Independent.

“Retailers are working closely with their suppliers and monitoring consumer behaviour to anticipate changes in future demand.”

Mr Opie added that sales of hand sanitiser have increased due to individuals and businesses making “sensible precautions”, and retailers are “taking necessary steps to meet the rise in demand for certain hygiene products”.

Ian Wright CBE, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), agreed that the UK is well-prepared to avoid shortages: “At this stage supply chains have experienced disruption but there is no evidence of significant disruption to food supplies.

“UK food and drink manufacturers have robust procedures in place.”

But Markus Kruger, chief economist for commercial data and analytics firm Dun and Bradstreet, explained to The Independent that the continued spread of the coronavirus could have long-term “potential impact to businesses, their supply chains and the economy at large”.

“Data shows that there are 51,000 companies worldwide that source directly from the impacted regions in China, with another five million companies indirectly exposed via ‘Tier 2’ supply chain relationships,” Mr Kruger said.

“South Korea and Italy, and companies are having to assess the potential risk to their supply chain and business operations.”

Mr Kruger added that while “the situation in China is starting to improve and several factories have re-opened (albeit not working with full capacity), supply chains will remain under stress for several more weeks”.

“This supply chain disruption comes at a time when UK companies are also dealing with uncertainty around the potential implementation of new tariffs and quotas in UK-EU trade at the end of the Brexit transition period in December,” he added.

Several supermarkets have been introducing measures such as the rationing of products so that consumers are unable to buy more than they require.

Since a measure was introduced at Sainsbury’s on 18 March, customers at the supermarket have only been able to buy a maximum of three grocery products and two of the most popular products, including toilet paper, soap and UHT milk.

Asda announced that customers can only buy up to three items from the food, toiletries and cleaning products aisles, while Waitrose said individuals can only buy three items at a time, and only two packets of toilet paper in one go.

Supermarkets including Iceland, Sainsbury's and Tesco have also introduced dedicated shopping hours for the elderly, vulnerable customers, NHS and social care workers so that they can get all the food and household supplies they need.

So is stockpiling necessary?

On Tuesday 3 March, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance joined Boris Johnson to address the nation over the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Vallance said members of the public should not resort to “panic-buying”.

“I think the advice is that there is absolutely no reason to be doing any panic buying of any sort or going out and keeping large supplies of things,” the chief scientific adviser said.

“Clearly there will need to be measures in cases of household quarantine for making sure food is in the right place at the right time but we imagine that could be a rolling case of household quarantine if that measure becomes necessary, and clearly things will need to be in place for care homes and so on if that decision is made.”

On the UK government’s website, it says that stockpiles are maintained of “the most important medicines and protective equipment for healthcare staff who may come into contact with patients with the virus”.

Following the implementation of a lockdown across the UK on Monday 23 March, the British Retail Consortium holds fast in the view that shoppers should only buy what they need and refrain from panic-buying.

“Retailers are working incredibly hard to keep shops well-stocked and delieveries running as smoothly as possible,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the organisation.

“In the face of unprecedented demand, we urge everyone to be considerate as buying more than is necessary can sometimes mean that others will be left without.

“This is a time for everyone to come together, and we hope everyone will support friends, family and neighbours, particularly those who are elderly or self-isolating, so that everyone can get access to the products they need.”

On Wednesday 25 March, Tesco released a statement outlining certain measures it had put into place to ensure all customers are treated fairly.

Customers can only buy three items from every product line and to shop in-store rather than online if customers are able to leave their homes as their online delivery slots are at full capacity.

“We have more stock coming into stores every day, with up to double the usual amounts of key essentials arriving — but we need everyone’s help: please buy only what you need, so that there is enough for everyone,” the supermarket said.

A spokesperson for Aldi informed The Independent that all supermarkets share the view that customers should not stockpile because there are enough supplies to go around.

People may worry that if they show symptoms for the coronavirus, they'll be unable to leave their home for 14 days and therefore may run low on household essentials.

In the event of this happening, it may be wise to contact a neighbour who could buy your groceries for you.

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