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More forceful action needed to stop stockpiling

Published Friday, 27th March 2020 in Research news

Supermarket shelves have been left empty after panic buying by customers
Supermarket shelves have been left empty after panic buying by customers

More forceful warnings around the social consequences of stockpiling during the coronavirus outbreak could ease the pressure on UK supermarkets.

This is according to economists at Scotland’s Rural College.

Montserrat Costa-Font and Cesar Revoredo-Giha, from SRUC’s Food Marketing Research department, said with supermarkets struggling to find staff and overcome product travel restrictions, and the most vulnerable members of society being left without access to food, action needs to be taken now.

In a blog about the UK food supply chain in the context of the Covid-19 situation, they wrote: “The Covid-19 outbreak has brought health risks and difficulties to our food chains. Demand above normal rates and behaviour towards hoarding of some basic products have affected the normal operation of the food supply chain, resulting in empty shelves in supermarkets, forcing some of them to impose constraints on the quantities sold. These impacts have increased the food insecurity risk of the most vulnerable groups in the country.”

Food supply chains have developed over time to allow retailers to use just-in-time or build-to-order strategies in order to provide a near-instant supply of products demanded by consumers at a particular time.

These chains are designed to cope with a variable demand within certain limits. However, they are unable to significantly increase the quantity they supply in the short term if there is a large and rapid upsurge in demand such as that seen with the Covid-19 outbreak.

In addition to increased demand, the outbreak has also led to additional issues such as a shortage of labour due to illness or self-isolation. In some parts of the chain, such as in agriculture, a lack of migrant labour due to Brexit has also reinforced the problems.

Dr Costa-Font and Dr Revoredo-Giha said the surge in consumer demand had been caused by at least three different factors, including:

  • People eating at home rather than in restaurants and other food outlets
  • Shoppers reducing the number of trips to the supermarket and increasing the amount they buy on each visit
  • Consumers panic-buying certain products due to a combination of media coverage and language used to describe the crisis

Despite supermarkets replenishing their supplies every day, their shelves are being emptied at a faster rate than usual, generating daily ‘stockouts’ for some products.

While steps have been taken by supermarkets to improve accessibility to food – including limiting the number of products each customer can buy, simplifying product ranges, changing opening hours, increasing delivery hours and taking on more staff – the surge in demand was impacting the most vulnerable in society with 1.6 million people reported to be living in food poverty in the UK and getting supplies from 2,000 food banks.

“Not only do they face a reduction in income, but the stockpiling might be increasing their food insecurity and reducing the availability of goods in food banks,” the researchers wrote.

“According to the Trussell Trust, food banks depend on the donation of non-perishable, in-date food by the public at a range of places, such as schools, churches and businesses, as well as supermarket collection points.

“In addition to availability issues, many food bank volunteers have been asked to self-isolate which weakens these much- needed institutions at the worst time.”

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