Panic buying concerns resurface after Victorian supermarkets reintroduce purchasing limits

Panic buying

Empty toilet paper shelves at Coles. Source: AAP/Kelly Barnes.

Social media is once again filling with photos of empty supermarket shelves, as fears grow of a second wave of panic buying from Australians in response to a decision by Coles and Woolworths to temporarily reintroduce purchasing limits in Victorian stores.

The limits have been brought back following a recent surge in the number of COVID-19 cases detected in Melbourne. Victoria reported 33 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, meaning more than 180 new cases have been detected in the state in the past 10 days. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has requested help from the Australian Defence Force to conduct a testing blitz on 100,000 residents in the most-affected suburbs over the next 10 days in a bid to contain the virus.

The spike in cases has created fears in Melbourne of another possible partial lockdown, prompting the major retailers to move swiftly to clamp down on panic buying.

At Woolworths, the two-item limits apply to toilet paper, hand sanitiser and paper towel, as well as pantry staples such as pasta, flour, sugar, mince meat, UHT milk, rice and eggs.

At Coles, Victorian shoppers are limited to buying one pack of toilet paper and paper towel at a time, while a two-item limit applies to hand sanitiser, pasta, flour, eggs, sugar, mince meat, UHT milk and rice.

The same limits apply nationally for Coles online shopping services, and also apply in-store in supermarkets and convenience stores located near the New South Wales and Victorian border, including in Albury, Lavington, Deniliquin and Tocumwal.

Both Coles and Woolworths have said the temporary limits have been introduced to ensure all shoppers have access to what they need, and do not reflect a shortage of stock.

Victorian supermarkets in the IGA network have also brought back purchasing limits on toilet paper, paper towel and hand santiser, as well as the same pantry staples as Coles and Woolworths. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Aldi has said it will not be introducing limits.

However, an Aldi store three hours from Melbourne was already showing signs on Thursday that shoppers were starting to panic buy again in regional Victoria, with virtually all toilet paper and paper towel stocks sold out.

The buying limits at the other retailers were introduced on Wednesday due to do an “abnormal increase” in demand from shoppers, according to Coles chief operating officer Matt Swindells, who said the major chains came to the agreement on a group phone call on Wednesday afternoon.

“We just want to get ahead of this. It’s important we approach it together and with a really firm and strong position that helps maintain calmness and maintain confidence,” the SMH reported him as saying.

According to some reports, this ‘calmness’ may be short-lived, as some buyers in NSW and South Australia are now also stocking up on essentials, even though the limits don’t apply to supermarkets in their states. 

The developments will also no doubt affect smaller, independent supermarkets, which experienced similar spikes in sales back in March when Australia first went into lockdown, and their local suppliers too.

Speaking to SmartCompany in April, Mt Evelyn IGA owner Tony Ingpen said he saw a slightly increased demand for toilet paper rolls quickly morph into a sales frenzy akin to “five Christmas Eves in one week” when Prime Minister Scott Morrison first announced border closures.

“In 48 years, I have never seen customers acting en masse in the same way,” he said.

Ingpen quickly turned to local businesses to stock his supermarket’s shelves, as traditional suppliers weren’t able to meet the demand fast enough.

“I said to the local baker, ‘anything you can bake I can sell’. I told the butcher, get ready for a tsunami, as you’ll be swamped,” he said.

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