Coronavirus: What are shops doing about stockpiling?

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Media captionCritical care nurse Dawn was driven to despair by the actions of panic-buyers

Shoppers are being told to buy only what they need, following shortages caused by panic buying.

So, what can be done to get supplies back into stores?

How many people are panic buying?

Empty shelves in the UK’s supermarkets have become a common sight.

The increase in demand has been similar to that seen at Christmas, according to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary George Eustice.

It has caused shortages of many products, including:

  • anti-bacterial products including hand sanitiser
  • toilet roll and tissues
  • long-life milk
  • pasta
  • tinned vegetables
  • rice
  • soap
  • cleaning products
  • pain relief

“There is £1bn more food in people’s houses than there was three weeks ago, so we should make sure we eat some of it,” said head of the British Retail Consortium, Helen Dickinson.

What is the government doing about panic buying?

Retailers say they have enough food and groceries to go round, but they are struggling to get items into stores as fast as people are buying them

Rules have been relaxed by the government to allow supermarkets to work together.

This means they can share resources, such as distribution depots, delivery vans and staff, as well as co-ordinating stock levels across the country.

Rules around drivers’ hours have been eased and the 5p plastic bag charge is being waived for online orders, to speed up deliveries.

Nevertheless, shortages remain common.

“Buying more than you need means that others may be left without,” said Mr Eustice. “As you shop think of those who are finishing their late shifts and need to pop to their local shops.”

How are supermarkets trying to stop panic buying?

The major supermarkets are imposing limits on how many of each item people can buy:

  • Tesco is limiting customers to three of any product, and only two of toilet roll and paracetamol
  • Sainsbury’s says people can buy up to three of any grocery product and two of more popular items like toilet paper, soap and long-life milk
  • Asda will let people purchase up to three of any food, toiletry or cleaning product
  • Aldi is limiting customers to four of any product
  • Waitrose is allowing people to buy only three of any grocery product and two packets of toilet roll

What else is being done for customers?

On Thursday, Sainsbury’s dedicated the first hour of opening in stores, apart from its Local shops, to elderly and vulnerable customers. It has since extended that to include NHS staff and social care workers.

Iceland has also been opening an hour early for elderly and vulnerable people, and Tesco and Waitrose are introducing similar schemes

However, retail expert Katie Hardcastle, said supermarkets could still do more: “A lot of elderly people need support with their shopping, or are not looking to go out at all, so I think that needs looking at.”

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Morrisons has said it will take on 500 staff from Marie Curie and CLIC Sargent charity shops to help the elderly and vulnerable in stores across Great Britain.

And it is also going to introduce a special hour in its large stores on a Sunday morning for its own staff and NHS workers to shop.

Many stores, including Tesco, Asda, Aldi, and Lidl have said they are hiring thousands of staff to meet the unprecedented demand. Some have shut cafes and deli counters to allow more staff to focus on restocking shelves.

Tesco has said it will introduce distancing measures at checkouts to reduce the risk of infection and Aldi is installing clear screens at all its checkouts.

Why there could soon be less choice

Several food retailers are “drastically cutting” the range of products they sell. They are also telling manufacturers to stop making some products to focus on those for which there is greatest demand.

For example, one retailer, which makes 60 kinds of sausages, will only produce a fraction of those.

And Morrisons has reduced its bakery lines from 17 to seven.

Are online deliveries holding up?

Online deliveries are being used by more people, but there are questions over how robust the systems are.

Ocado suspended its website and app after struggling with the number of bookings.

Some Tesco deliveries are not arriving in their scheduled time slot and others are not being delivered at all if the driver runs out of time.

Most major supermarkets have all their delivery slots booked up for at least the next couple of weeks.

Morrisons said it would increase its number of delivery slots by recruiting 2,500 extra pickers and drivers.

Sainsbury’s says it is going to prioritise delivery slots for elderly and vulnerable people.