As South Africa prepares for a COVID-19-enforced 21-day lockdown come Thursday, panic buying has set in and entire stores are getting stripped to the bones by customers who fear the worst.
“Panic buying is unnecessary because food production will continue and the country has sufficient supplies,” said Agriculture Minister, Thoko Didiza, recently.
Indeed, grocers, banks, filling stations and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) will continue to operate even as the lockdown is in place. Also, citizens will be allowed to leave their homes to buy food and medicine, seek medical care and collect welfare grants. There’s even a plan for runners and dog walkers.
But it seems all that has fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps only a few people pay attention to anything that comes after the word: “lockdown”. Per a source who is very familiar with the South African retail market, people are stocking up on groceries and toiletries like crazy.
“We did not have panic buying to the extent they had in Europe until four or 5 days ago,” explains Damian Archer, who is an operating partner in two 10-year-old Pick n Pay franchise stores with a combined annual turnover of ZAR 400 Mn (USD 22.8 Mn).
“Even then, this [panic buying] was confined to the suburbs and largely the upper LSM consumers, panic buying the same items as overseas: toilet rolls, sanitisers, soaps. As the week went on the excess buying extended to tinned food, vitamins, and long-life milk,” Archer told WeeTracker.
However, this purchase spike seems to only be happening in the urban centres where mostly upper Living Standards Measure (LSM) consumers find a place of abode.
To reference one of the memes flying around on social media, “panic buying” becomes just “panic” when the bank balance is not so healthy. And it is mostly the rural dwellers that can relate.
As Archer puts it, “In the rural areas, there was no spike at all. This could be partly because the African people from the rural areas have not got caught up in the frenzied panic that we see in suburbia and also they are probably constrained by the fact that its middle of the month and they don’t have the resources to bulk buy even if they wanted to.”
In any case, supermarkets in cities have begun to adopt measures to ensure that mass hysteria does not boil over and result in a few privileged individuals hoarding products needed by so many people. Also, the country seems to have run out of sanitisers.
“The supermarkets have been quick to react in limiting these sought after goods to try and ensure that all of their customers are able to get these goods when payday arrives.
“Even though we have not experienced the panic buying in the rural areas, we are being short delivered on certain lines as the national warehouses were depleted with the short-term bulk buying on certain lines,” explained Archer.
“This will be for a very short time and tinned food and household goods such as bleach and soap will soon be in full stock again, though sanitiser may take longer, as currently, almost nobody has any retail stock, though we still have bulk sanitisers for cleaning of the food stores, fortunately.”
Archer also told WeeTracker that major efforts are being made at the store level to keep things under control.
“Stores are doing everything they can but the situation in the country (and the rest of the world) changes daily. We have sanitiser dispensers and various points around the store and stores all have someone at the entrance to sanitise customers hands as they enter.
“Social distancing is being encouraged but will be a challenge come month-end when stores are traditionally swamped with people, especially in the rural areas,” he said.
Besides all that, Archer revealed in his capacity that there is daily communication with staff, training and clarification, as well as deep-cleaning of all areas, particularly the fresh food area which is now being cleaned several times a day instead of once a day.
Also, members of staff are encouraged to wash their hands regularly and avoid unnecessary contact with colleagues or customers.
Featured Image Courtesy: Bloomberg