'Selfish and wasteful' shoppers clear shelves of food and supplies

Wendy Knowler Consumer journalist
Stores said on Monday that they were starting to limit the number of items people could buy, amid panic buying in the wake of the coronavirus.
Stores said on Monday that they were starting to limit the number of items people could buy, amid panic buying in the wake of the coronavirus.
Image: Aron Hyman

President Cyril Ramaphosa's grave announcement on Sunday night appears to have switched many coronavirus fence-sitters into full-on paranoid mode, with a sharp increase reported in online grocery sales and panic buying clearing many supermarket shelves.

Shoprite said there has been a definite increase in orders via its app Sixty60. “Following last night’s announcement of the national state of disaster, order volumes have today spiked beyond all expectations,” said the company.

The app, which has been in trial phase since November in parts of Gauteng and Cape Town, is “looking at ways to increase capacity to accommodate the increase in orders”, it added.

Shoprite said it was considering limiting the number of items being ordered online and the number of units per product, per customer.

Pick n Pay has also seen a spike in online grocery orders, while Woolworths said online sales of “certain hygiene and sanitising products” had increased.

By mid-morning on Monday, photos of totally empty or near empty supermarket shelves were going viral: fresh meat, bread and fresh fruit and vegetables included.

Prof Gunnar Sigge, head of Stellenbosch University’s food science department, was baffled by the panic buying of perishable foods.

"Many of those perishable foods don’t freeze well, so much of it currently being 'stock-piled’ in panic now may actually go to waste. This is further compounding the selfish and wasteful behaviour of some consumers," he said.

"Consumers would be much better off purchasing shelf-stable, non-perishable foods like rice, pasta, canned and frozen products.”

Shelves were empty in many stores on Monday as people rushed to buy food and supplies following the president's declaration of a national state of disaster.
Shelves were empty in many stores on Monday as people rushed to buy food and supplies following the president's declaration of a national state of disaster.
Image: Aron Hyman

Pick n Pay has already started limiting sales of heavily in demand items in store.

“Where stocks are temporarily low due to heavy customer demand, we will be temporarily limiting the number of certain products per customer. Signage in-store and online will guide them on what these are," said a spokesperson.

“Understandably, as customers read and act on the advice they are receiving, they are buying more household cleaning and personal hygiene products. We’ve seen demand for these products increase over the past week." 

The retail group encouraged its customers to “continue shopping responsibly”.

A Spar spokesperson said the company had been inundated with calls from anxious consumers on Monday.

“Most want to know about our own-brand soap Germex and where to get it. I also had a call from a customer to say a cashier had coughed [once] and she wanted her sent home,” she said.

Spar has not yet begun limiting the number of items bought per customer.

Massmart spokesperson Brian Leroni said that due to the spike in demand for hygiene products, including sanitisers, wipes, including bulk purchases, its brands, Makro and Game, had begun to enforce customer limits.

“We are very mindful that stockpiling hurts the most vulnerable consumers in our society, who don’t have the discretionary income to make large purchases,” he said.


“We are determined to ensure that we are able to meet their needs - both in terms of merchandise availability and affordability - to coincide with their availability of funds at month-end.”


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