Stockpiling trend spreads from Asia to Europe amid coronavirus fears

Consumer staples in high demand as shoppers plan for the worst

Toilet roll panic: Empty shelves in the tissue paper aisle in a supermarket in London on March 4th, 2020. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP

Toilet roll panic: Empty shelves in the tissue paper aisle in a supermarket in London on March 4th, 2020. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP

 

The stockpiling crisis that has hit supermarkets across Asia has spread to Europe as consumers start hoarding groceries and hygiene products amid fears of a coronavirus pandemic.

Grocery stores in Germany and the Netherlands - where the local phrase for stockpiling is “hamster buying,” as it is akin to the pet rodents stuffing their cheeks with nuts - face high demand for staples such as toilet paper.

Supplies of hand sanitiser gels are rapidly selling out in France and Britain, and the French government is considering capping the price after some retailers were reported to be taking advantage of the demand.

A recent spread of coronavirus cases across Europe has fuelled the urge to stockpile, as has the advice from health officials worldwide to wash hands, use sanitizer and self isolate if people suspect they have been infected.

At the DM drugstore in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of central Berlin on Monday, shoppers had cleared the shelves of toilet paper, tissues, paper towels and plastic gloves.

Large sacks of flour, canned goods, muesli and oat milk had also sold out. In a Carrefour supermarket in France near the Swiss border, there was a run on canned ravioli on Tuesday. Half the toilet paper had been sold, and there was little toothpaste left.

Hand sanitiser was among the hardest-to-find products at stores from London to Paris and Amsterdam. Boots, the UK chemist chain, has limited customers to buying two bottles at a time, though the company said it still had the product in stock.

Overall, sales of hand sanitiser in British supermarkets more than tripled in February, while liquid soap sales grew 7 per cent, according to new figures from Kantar.

For the UK, at least, this is only the latest round of stockpiling. Some shoppers loaded up over the course of last year on concern Britain would crash out of the European Union without an agreement on the divorce process, affecting supply chains and creating shortages.

“Given the media focus around the outbreak of Covid-19 in February, it’s unsurprising to see shoppers prudently protecting themselves from illness,” said Fraser McKevitt, head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar, who added that 10 per cent more was spent on household cleaners in February than the same time last year.

‘Survival list’

The German health ministry has even published a food survival list on its website and said that keeping a supply of staples on hand was a good idea even without the coronavirus.

The suggested list for 10 days for one adult includes 20 litres of drinks, 3.5 kilograms of grains, potatoes, noodles and rice, 4 kilograms of vegetables and pulses, 2.5 kilograms of fruit and nuts, and 2.6 kilograms of milk products. It also suggests storing about half a kilo of fats and oils.

If alarm over the virus intensifies, there is a danger that consumer behavior could turn nastier.

The transition from panic buying to food riots in stores is a quick one, according to Bruno Monteyne, an analyst at Bernstein Research and a former supply chain director at Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket.

“Witness French people rioting in stores a few years ago over the last deeply promoted Nutella pots,” he said.

Although the UK grocery supply chain is efficient, if panic buying and staff absences increase amid a widespread pandemic, “it would only take a few weeks to generate major shortages,” Monteyne said in a note issued to clients this week.

In that scenario, supermarkets would shift to a “feed the nation” status, he said, selling reduced ranges while the army protected depots, food trucks and stores.

“This isn’t about scaremongering,” he said. “The spreading of a pandemic was always considered a matter of when rather than if, and the industry has plans in place and has almost certainly started to activate those plans.” – Bloomberg