Coles introduces toilet paper policy amid coronavirus panic-buying

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As people continue to panic-hoard toilet paper across Australia due to coronavirus fears, Coles has followed Woolworths’ lead and implemented a temporary limit.

On Tuesday, Woolworths announced a four-pack limit of toilet paper per customer per transaction – both online and in-store – to ensure customers have access to the household staple.

Following criticism from a few customers online, Coles has now announced a toilet paper limit.

“To ensure all of our customers have access to toilet paper, a temporary purchase limit of four packs per customer transaction will now apply in-store and online,” a spokesperson for the supermarket giant said in a statement.

A photo inside Coles Umina where there are empty shelves in the toilet paper aisle as people panic-buy amid the coronavirus outbreak.
A Coles customer called upon the supermarket to impose a limit on the number of toilet paper packs people could buy. Source: Supplied/Michael Dahlstrom

Just an hour before Coles announced the limit, a customer called for the grocery chain to do so on Facebook.

“Hey Coles, when are you going to put a limit on how much toilet paper people can buy?” the customer asked on Facebook, adding there was not enough for the “normal people and their families” who weren’t stockpiling toilet paper.

“Stop allowing people to load shopping trolleys with toilet paper... you need to [enforce] tight limits per customer,” another person wrote online.

“People are yelling at one another, the frustration in communities is beyond ridiculous and people should not have to travel just to get some.”

The Coles spokesperson said the limit would help the supermarket keep toilet paper stocked and on the shelves.

“This will help us maintain stock levels in stores while our suppliers increase local production and our distribution centres increase deliveries,” the spokesperson said.

“While there may be some temporary stock shortages, the vast majority of products in our stores and via Coles online remain available for customers.”

The supermarket said its team was working hard to improve the availability across stores and apologised to any customers who were unable to get the items they wanted.

Woolworths toilet roll shelves have been left bare across the country. Pictured is a Woolworths store in the Sutherland Shire.
Woolworths imposed the limit earlier this week in response to empty shelves. Source: Kamilia Palu

Previously speaking to Yahoo News Australia, retail expert Gary Mortimer questioned how effective Woolworths toilet paper limit would be by comparing it to baby formula and saying customers would simply purchase their four packs of toilet paper and then go back in to buy more.

In a statement provided to Yahoo News Australia on Thursday, a Woolworths spokesperson said the supermarket was still working closely with suppliers to “ramp up deliveries and production to maintain stock availability for our customers”.

The spokesperson said staff were working “around the clock” to keep stock replenished and, while the “vast majority” of stock was available to customers, Woolworths apologised for any inconveniences relating to stock shortages.

Idea for a ‘strategic toilet paper reserve’

While the federal health minister has called for calm and the major supermarkets have introduced limits, another suggestion is for the government to assuage concerns with a “strategic bog roll reserve”.

Speaking to ABC Radio National on Thursday morning, economics professor Justin Wolfers floated the idea of a government-backed strategic toilet paper reserve. He was only half joking.

The professor from the University of Michigan and visiting professor at the University of Sydney said the cheeky idea could actually stop people from hoarding toilet paper simply because they saw everyone else doing it.

“The dilemma we’re in, is that you look out the window and you see your neighbours rushing off to buy toilet paper. You see that and you think well I’m worried when I go to do my weekly shop they’ll be out of toilet paper,” he said.

In the world of behavioural economics, people rushing out to buy toilet paper because everyone else is, is called their “best response”, Prof Wolfers said.

He likened the situation to a bank run when depositors all try to take their money out of the banking system at once causing the whole economy to crash.

In order to prevent this from happening, in times of crisis governments step in to guarantee deposits (in fact all bank accounts are guaranteed by the Australian government to $250,000).

What started out as a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, Prof Wolfers put forth the idea the Australian government could do a similar thing – just with essential supplies.

“The truth is that there’s enough toilet paper in Australia for all our bums. But we’re each rushing to get it in our own basements because we’re worried that someone else will rush ahead of us and put it in their basement,” he said.

Prof Wolfers said markets worked better with a bit of government intervention.

“What if the federal government guaranteed that if your local shop was out of toilet paper, it will sell you some from its strategic bog roll reserve, up to two rolls per person, per week?” he said.

“Now if I see my neighbour rush off, I don’t need to panic.”

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