Will Coles and Woolworths run out of products amid coronavirus 'panic buying hysteria'?

Olivia Lambert
News Editor

Supermarket customers fear they will be left without essential items like toilet paper and nappies as panicked buyers flock to stores to stock up amid the coronavirus crisis.

But is there really a need for them to worry that goods will run out?

Countries are now in “uncharted territory” as the illness continues to spike outside of mainland China and rapidly spreads globally.

In the past 24 hours, the deadly virus has been spreading outside China at nine times the rate of the spread inside.

People stockpiling toilet paper at Costco. Source: Facebook

In Australia 38 people have been infected and one man has died. The latest to be diagnosed was a 20-year-old Queensland university student from China.

The expeditious growth of the number of people infected are leaving supermarkets looking like ghost towns as people prepare for 14 days in isolation in case they come into contact with the coronavirus.

The panic buying is now causing concern among other customers who fear they will not be able to purchase important items they need.

“What is wrong with people. Panic buying causes hysteria. People who really need these products won’t be able to get them because of this madness,” one woman wrote on Facebook.

Number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Australia as of March 3, 2020. Source: Yahoo News Australia

Others commented on the post saying people clearing supermarket shelves were “outrageous” and “selfish”.

Another called for Woolworths to impose a limit on how much toilet paper a customer could purchase at once.

“There are a lot of stupid people out there who are panic buying with the misconception that ALL toilet paper is made in China, where only 40 per cent is made in China,” the man wrote on Facebook.

“It’s really not fair on normal every day need for toilet hygiene because people are panicked where they don’t need to [be].”

Will stock on supermarket shelves be replenished?

Coles and Woolworths acknowledged their shelves had been cleared of items such as long-life pantry staples, toilet paper and healthcare items.

“Like many retailers, we currently have a shortage of some antibacterial handwashes and hand sanitiser products due to high customer demand,” Coles told Yahoo News Australia in a statement.

Coles said it had increased the number of deliveries to stores to improve availability on popular products.

“We are continuing to work with our suppliers to maintain availability for customers.”

Woolworths said it had also seen a sharp increase in demand for long-life pantry items and household staples in recent days, which led to partial stock shortages across some stores.

Woolworths said it had been working with suppliers to ramp up deliveries and production to maintain stock availability for our customers.

ALDI is continuing to monitor the situation in stores.

Anti-bacterial products were cleared from a Coles shelf in Perth. Source: Facebook

Gary Mortimer, retail expert from Queensland University of Technology, told Yahoo News Australia unfortunately some customers had panicked and rushed to stores to stock up in case of an event where they’d be isolated for 14 days.

“As you can imagine supermarkets tend to run on very low volumes of inventory in store,” he explained.

“The aim here is they constantly rotate merchandise and turn your stock so a supermarket in some categories like bulk toilet paper may only hold one or two days worth of inventory in store and replenish it every day.

“I think it’s important to stress some of the images aren’t reflective of an entire supermarket – you’re always going to be able to get vitamins and cans of baked beans and vegetables.

“My advice would be to add a couple of extra items every time you go shopping – there’s no need to immediately rush out and blow the grocery household shopping budget.”

‘Better to order online’

Mr Mortimer said it would be too difficult to police a two items per person limit in supermarkets and suggested it would be better for people to order groceries online.

“They don’t need to have it delivered today, it could wait three or four days,” he said.

“It’s a really easy option and you don’t even have to go out.”

With the coronavirus outbreak in China affecting import and export trade, there have been concerns the empty supermarket shelves could remain barren for the foreseeable future, but Mr Mortimer says it’s simply not the case.

“The majority of fresh food – fruit, vegetable, meat, dairy, deli items and the bakery – are produced or sourced domestically,” he said.

A woman posted on Facebook a picture of an empty shelf at Coles in Leichhardt. Source: Facebook

“Most canned vegetables and canned fruit are an Australian domestic product, most cereals, soft drink and bottled water are produced here so not a great deal of food is exported out of China.

“What we do export out of China is clothing, footwear and textiles so I think the supermarkets will be relatively immune to the impact of coronavirus when it comes to inventory but fashion and electronics retailers may struggle to get supply in the short-term.

“I think westernised, first world nations – Australia, Europe and the US – have sufficient supply to get us through periods of pandemic.”

No risk to food availability, retail chief says

Australian Retailers Association executive director, Russell Zimmerman, echoed in a statement there was “no need to panic”.

He said while shoppers may find shelves empty, he received assurances that warehouse inventories remained high and any “shortage” was likely to be temporary.

“We urge Australian consumers to go about their business as per usual at present,” Mr Zimmerman said.

“We’re comfortable there’s no risk to the availability of food or household essentials; with major retailers maintaining high inventories. If a brand you wish to purchase isn’t available today, it’ll probably be back on the shelf tomorrow.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Tuesday he also was not concerned about supply in Australia, but confirmed he had spoken to Coles and Woolworths about the issue.

“I thought it was important to have an understanding from those major companies about the processes they are putting in place about how they will continue delivering services to the Australian community,” he said.

“What they were able to feed back to me was very positive and I’m pleased with the plans they have in place. The prolific nature of this has been presented on social media and things like that, it is not as widespread as those images suggest.”

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