Coronavirus triggers bad case of 'hamsterkauf'

Press/Media: Expert Comment


At Woolworths' supermarket in the normally genteel Sydney suburb of St Ives, customers were lined up outside the doors at 7am on Wednesday to stock up on dwindling supplies of toilet paper.

By 9am, customers were fighting over the last few rolls, even though the retailer – following intervention from Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday – decided overnight to ration purchases to four packs per customer.

At Woolworths' Parramatta store the scenes were even uglier – police were called after a man pulled a knife in a fight over toilet paper.

Australia has come down with a bad case of "hamsterkauf" – the German word for panic hoarding – amid growing fears about the coronavirus epidemic.

While Australia only has 44 positive diagnoses of coronavirus and retailers and suppliers have assured consumers there is no risk to supplies of essential products, fear of missing out has triggered the worst panic buying since the Millennium bug scare in 2000.

"Fear breeds fear – it's a downward psychological spiral," said Jana Bowden, a consumer engagement expert and associate professor in the Department of Marketing at Macquarie University.

"It's easy for consumers to get swept up in fear when you're dealing with the bare necessities of life," Ms Bowden said.

Unprecedented hysteria

In a move that's likely to add to the uncertainty, Sorbent, which makes toilet paper at a factory at Box Hill in Melbourne, said sustained panic buying could lead to short-term supply shortages.

Steve Nicholson, Sorbent's corporate affairs director, said the ''hysteria'' had been unprecedented and controls put in place by Woolworths should help stabilise the situation.

But he said if the panic buying continued production might become stretched. "If this continues that will change, and supply will come under more pressure,'' he said

Australia's largest toilet paper manufacturer, ABC Tissue, which runs three plants in Sydney, Perth and Queensland and makes the Quilton brand, said its biggest factory at Wetherill Park, in outer Sydney, was running 24 hours a day and seven days a week to keep up with demand.

ABC Tissue brand manager Loretta Lau said the company was ''really positive'' it would be able to keep up with the unprecedented demand.

"Definitely the demand has been rising. We are doing our best,'' Ms Lau said.

Kimberly-Clark, the US-based conglomerate that makes the Kleenex brand, said its toilet paper plant at Millicent, in south-east South Australia, was running at full capacity.

"We're working very closely with our customers to get more Kleenex toilet paper to the shelves faster,'' a spokeswoman said.

Ms Bowden said consumers spooked by stories of stockpiling in Singapore and Hong Kong had been tipped over the edge into panic buying by the Prime Minister's well-intentioned intervention and recent advice from health authorities that consumers should have enough supplies of essential goods to see them through in the event they were quarantined for several weeks.

Woolworths' unprecedented decision to ration toilet paper to four packs per customer had added to the fear, Ms Bowden said.

"I think the restriction itself has fed into consumers' fear of missing out and created an additional level of panic – that's driving more consumers to consider these restricted products," she said.

"Even though there isn't a supply issue when it comes to toilet paper – we had Kimberly-Clark come out saying we don't have a production problem and can supply the market – even with that information, the fact there's a potential supply problem has created even more panic," she said.

"There's a psychological fear factor in operation, compelling them to buy even if they have plenty at home."

Loo roll profiteering

On Wednesday, supplies of toilet paper were still low in Coles and Woolworths, online and instore, despite collaboration with suppliers to ramp up production and increase the frequency of deliveries.

Online subscription-based toilet paper supplier Who Gives a Crap was sold out, Amazon told Prime customers it would take a week, instead of the usual two days, for toilet paper to be delivered, and profiteers were attempting to sell loo paper at enormous mark-ups on eBay and Facebook Marketplace.

"Well. That. Was. Crazy. With all the panic buying madness, we've sold out and are working as hard as possible to restock," Who Gives a Crap said on its website, urging customers to show kindness and empathy and share spare rolls with neighbours.

Woolworths not only applied rationed purchases of toilet paper, it also plans to apply a two-pack limit on anti-bacterial hand sanitiser when products, which have been out of stock for almost a week, come back into stores later this week. Woolworths will sell hand sanitiser from behind its service desk, rather than from the shelves, to enforce the limit.

However, a Woolworths spokesman said it had no plans to ration purchases of other pantry staples such as pasta, rice, bread mixes, canned foods and tissues, which have also been snapped up by anxious shoppers, leaving large gaps on shelves.

Coles said it was in ongoing contact with suppliers, government stakeholders and transport partners to determine how best to improve availability on popular products such as long-life pantry staples and healthcare items.

"We have increased deliveries from our distribution centres and our teams are working hard to fill the shelves as quickly as possible," a spokeswoman said.

"While there may be some temporary stock shortages, the vast majority of products in our stores and via Coles online remain available for customers.”

Period5 Mar 2020

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