Within a day of a lockdown being announced, supermarkets looked as if a plague of locusts had hit them. There’s no particular need for anybody to panic-buy – supermarkets are staying open during the lockdown, and we are assured that supply chains remain operational – but the first headline saying “Shoppers urged not to panic-buy” was like a bomb under the shopping populace. Now everyone’s doing it just because everyone else is doing it.
I saw an explainer that said that at times like this, people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty, and they are desperate to feel that they’re in control of something. Stocking up on groceries is a way of achieving that feeling.
People are acting like wild animals. A neighbour of mine posted the video below, from her trip to the supermarket the other day. In some supermarkets people are actually attacking each other and stealing food from each other’s trolleys, so this one is pretty tame, considering:
A critical-care nurse posted this video after she went to get some groceries after a 48-hour shift and found nothing to buy. “People like me are going to be looking after you when you’re at your lowest,” she said. “Just stop it!”
But shaming people, it turns out, isn’t a very effective way of changing their behaviour. Apparently in Italy they damped the frenzy by restocking shelves regularly and visibly so people were reassured that there wouldn’t be shortages.
In one of the “Please refrain from panic-buying” articles it said that supermarkets have contingency plans to keep their supply lines up and running even during disasters, so I thought it was all under control. However, I bumped into my next-door neighbours as they were heading to Tesco. Their lodger works there and he says that it’s not just the shop floor that has been emptied – the warehouses have been cleaned out too. They ask their lodger to put groceries aside for them before it gets put out on the shelves – but then they have to cover their baskets so they don’t get other shoppers clutching at them and screeching “Where did you get that?!!!”
I did see one article saying that supermarkets are repurposing their action plans drawn up in case of a no-deal Brexit, so maybe they didn’t have natural-disaster contingency plans after all, in which case that’s one useful thing to have come out of Brexit.
The smaller shops seem to still be pretty well stocked, although you can’t walk through them without brushing up intimately against a whole lot of people as you shuffle sideways through the aisles. And I did find one big supermarket that seemed to have returned to normality. There were notices displayed all over the place saying “We are working hard to keep shelves stocked up. Please be considerate of others when buying. No more than 3 of each item per customer”.
Apparently the main problem is the just-in-time supply model. In the past, supermarkets would keep large quantities of stock in their warehouses, but now, to reduce the cost of warehousing, they have finely-tuned supply chains that deliver only as much as is needed, precisely when it is needed. Stuart Rose, former executive chairman of Marks and Spencer and current chairman of online grocer Ocado, was asked in a radio interview whether this just-in-time model was a liability at a time like this. He agreed that it might be but explained that it was necessary in order for supermarkets to keep prices competitive. He agreed that in the coming weeks and months supply chains might well be squeezed, and then then castigated the shopping public for their role in it all:
“The British public is currently hoarding about £1bn worth of food in their homes. There is not going to be a shortage of food, but we’re going to have to start changing our habits. At the moment our society is astonishingly profligate. We throw away an enormous amount of food, and we’re going to have to start making it go further. A chicken, for instance: on the first day, you have your roast chicken; on the second day you have chicken sandwiches, and on the third day you make the carcass into soup!”