British supermarkets are prepared for food riots if panic buying becomes widespread in the worst-cast scenario of a coronavirus pandemic, a retail expert has said.
Former Tesco supply chain director Bruno Monteyne said a major outbreak of the virus would result in ‘panic buying, empty shelves and food riots’ but that at this stage retailers would revert to ‘feed the nation’ status to avoid anyone going hungry.
It came as Boris Johnson tried to reassure Britons he would ‘keep the country fed’ and urged people to refrain from stockpiling essentials as photos circulated of empty shelves in supermarkets.
However, despite the demand on food retailers, it was a different picture elsewhere. High streets and shopping centres were today seen largely deserted as shoppers stayed at home – partly over concerns about catching the disease.
A Tesco store is seen stripped of toilet paper amid warnings shoppers must avoid panic buying essentials
Chopped tomatoes have flown off the shelves in a Tesco store. People have said they are setting up ‘contingency plans’ in case a disaster strikes in the UK
An empty Oxford Street in central London, where coronavirus fears combined with the rain to keep shoppers away
The usually busy Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd’s Bush was also quiet today
Monteyne, of investment firm Alliance Bernstein, said the virus reaching pandemic status would lead to thousands of supermarket delivery drivers going off work, reducing the rate at which stores can be replenished.
Warehouses typically only hold one to two weeks of stock for non-refrigerated food products and only a few days for perishable goods and bulky items like toilet paper, so panic buying would rapidly lead to shortages.
At this point the industry’s crisis-management mode would kicks in, with supermarkets working together to ensure there is enough food to go round, Monteyne said in a report.
Supermarkets would immediately reduce their ranges to stock only essential goods, with the Army called in to guard stores, food depots and trucks and to ensure food is distributed around the country.
‘Yes, it will be chaotic (and expect pictures of empty shelves),’ he wrote, ‘but the industry will reduce complexity to keep the country fed.’
He said Tesco, the country’s largest grocer, had regularly practised ‘multiday simulation’ exercises about what to do in the event of a pandemic, so the industry was well-prepared.
Pasta shelves in ASDA are pictured almost empty after they were stripped bare by worried shoppers
A queue of people was pictured outside Boots in Wimbledon this morning reportedly waiting to buy hand sanitiser
Tesco’s empty baked beans shelves are pictured as people stockpile in the face of a coronavirus outbreak in the UK
Prime Minster Boris Johnson, speaking on ITV’s This Morning today, was asked if he could guarantee Britons will still be able to get food, and replied: ‘Yes’
The number of UK coronavirus cases jumped to 116 today – double the figure two days before.
Shops including Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Waitrose are looking increasingly desolate as people begin stockpiling household goods.
Pictures show empty aisles as sections for hand soap and disinfectant, nappies and baby wipes as well as dried goods such as pasta and rice are cleared.
Retail analyst Patrick O’Brien, of Global Data PLC, said it was vital shoppers avoided making unnecessarily large food purchases that would put a strain on supplies.
‘We are seeing that online order slots at grocers are filling up are getting booked up for a couple of days ahead, which is highly unusual,’ he said.
‘Panic buying raises the risk that products aren’t distributed across the country. Stockpiling is highly negative and very damaging.
‘Stockpiling in itself creates panic, and when people start to see gaps on the shelves it pushes people to jump on board and creates a sense of panic.
‘In these times we need to be thinking of the greater good and no act selfishly. Without panic buying they’ll be no issue.’
An ASDA store is seen with a poster warning: ‘We are out of stock of hand sanitizer and we do not stock face masks. Sorry for any inconvenience’
Supermarket shelves have been seen stripped of home cleaning products – the chief medical officer today said the virus can survive on hard surfaces for up to three days
The number of UK coronavirus cases has hit 116 this afternoon with fears the rate could accelerate
It came as manufacturers of essential products said they were already increasing production to keep up with demand.
Demand has been especially heavy on items such as alcohol gel and toilet paper, with supplies largely emptied in some stores.
Kerry Owens, marketing director at Karium, which manufactres Cuticura hand gel, said: ‘We have taken immediate action to increase our production volumes, in order to meet this initial increased demand and to avoid empty shelves.
‘We are doing everything we can to help retailers keep our products on shelf for as long as possible.
‘We are working on a solution to source more components, i.e. bottles and caps, so that we can sustain this higher production over an extended period.
‘We will also be utilising the range of bottles we have available in our portfolio from 50ml to 250ml, we are looking to source additional bottles within the UK to continue fulfilling orders.’
Taking to the ITV This Morning sofa to reassure the country before the number of UK cases hit 116, Mr Johnson was asked if he could guarantee Britons will still be able to get food, and replied: ‘Yes.’
Supermarket aisles remained desolate across the country today as shoppers continue to scoop up dried foods like pasta and rice
Pasta had also been stripped off the shelves at this Tesco store. Supermarkets are reportedly having to bolster their stocks of soap, pasta and toilet roll
On ITV’s This Morning. Boris Johnson insisted he will be guided by scientists – saying there will be a ‘balance’ between ‘draconian’ measures to limit the spread and keeping society functioning
Mr Johnson said a ‘range of options’ were being considered for how to respond and stressed that the government was being guided by leading scientists on what is needed to limit the impact of a major outbreak.
The PM insisted that ‘draconian’ measures such as banning large gatherings and telling elderly people to batten down the hatches at home ‘wouldn’t work as well as people think’.
But presenter Phillip Schofield pressed Mr Johnson to make sure the government gave full information, saying: ‘I need to know, at what point do I tell my mum actually, it might be a good idea to stay in now?’
Mr Johnson insisted: ‘We are putting it out as fast as we can… We want to overcommunicate with the public about what is happening.’
The PM’s attempts to reassure the public came after England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned this morning the virus was now spreading among Britons and not just between those who had travelled abroad.
Although the pressure on retailers is significant, industry figures are adamant they are able to meet current levels of demand.
Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: ‘Our members are working as hard as they can to ensure consumers have access to whatever products they want.
‘Even when circumstances are difficult, retailers are well-versed in providing effective measures to keep retail sites running smoothly, and we are working with suppliers to ensure this continues.’
Where have all the shoppers gone? Experts warn coronavirus ‘could be final nail in the coffin’ for under-fire High Street retailers as shopping football figures fall and consumer economy ‘goes into panic mode’
Terri-Ann Williams for MailOnline
Experts have today warned that the coronavirus ‘could be the final nail in the coffin’ for an already under-fire UK High Street as the ‘consumer economy enters panic mode’.
Many areas that would usually be brimming with customers seemed to have been deserted, including Meadowhall in Sheffield, Bluewater in Kent, London‘s Oxford Street and Lakeside Shopping Centre in Essex.
Retail experts told MailOnline that the outbreak was ‘pretty unhelpful’ to those trying to get by in the current economic climate.
Eerie pictures from inside the centre in Sheffield show just a handful of customers browsing in shop windows outside a Primark and Next store, while the shops themselves also look extremely empty.
It comes as cases of the coronavirus in the UK reached 90 as it spreads across the country, with cases having been confirmed in many places such as London, Maidstone and Carlisle.
This week British retailers also reported disruption to their supply chains due to the spread of the virus and many are struggling to maintain their supplies that are usually sourced from China, where many factories and suppliers have been closed down in order to contain and prevent the virus spreading.
Oxford Street in London was left deserted this morning as shoppers opted to stay inside rather than go to public places to do their shopping
Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield (pictured above) was empty today aside from a handful of customers looking in shop windows
Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock, Essex was extremely quiet this morning with just a few customers strolling around the centre
Clare Bailey who runs The Retail Champion told MailOnline that the coronavirus outbreak has affected footfall.
Speaking this afternoon she said people are scared of being exposed to the virus and that many could avoid going to public places.
‘It is yet another blow to retailers and there may be some who need that money in the till now in terms of cash flow – there could be a few where this could be the final nail in the coffin for them.
‘In terms of footfall people will be less inclined to go out for non-essential items.
‘Train stations have been busy and we saw the collapse of Fly Be overnight and the virus could have been their nail in the coffin.
‘To some extent it does feel a bit like over kill but the consumer economy has gone into panic mode.’
She added that people were concerned and that she had nine cancellations in one day for the Future High Street conference she is hosting later this month.
‘And that’s through fears of being exposed to the virus. One person told me they had loads of substitutions in their online shop and that was because people were panic buying.
‘Some people are out shopping but people are taking precautions about being in crowded areas and if it’s an unnecessary shop – which most malls they aren’t core basics – you don’t have to go – I wouldn’t be surprised if people aren’t going in.
‘If they haven’t spent it this week and they want to shop it will mean they shop another week – a bad few weeks until it blows over – may move some sales’.
A general view of Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent is seen above. Just one customer can be seen in the distance
Food outlets at Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent seemed to be a little busier than other areas in the centre as many stopped for a bite to eat
Buses still lined the streets this lunch time on Oxford Street in London but the pavements were noticeably less busy this afternoon
The British Retail Consortium said they have not yet seen an impact on sales across the UK, but pictures from across the country tell a very different story as London’s Oxford Street, usually packed with tourists, workers and shoppers alike was near enough empty today.
The group also said that sales would not be impacted by a reduction in Chinese tourists visiting the country to buy their goods.
Despite this the group did say that sales on luxury goods had taken a small hit.
In a statement the group said: ‘It is too early to see what the impact will be of coronavirus on sales. The situation will depend on both how quickly any disruption to the supply chain is resolved and whether the coronavirus truly takes hold in the UK. However, we have seen some impact to sales in the luxury sector due to the decline in Chinese tourists.’
This is while a retail consultant at Canny Insights also told MailOnline that it has come at a bad time for retailers as March is usually when footfall picks up.
Graham Soult said: ‘Coronavirus is pretty unhelpful to the retail industry and everyone is still trying to understand the impacts of the it. March is when it should be picking up and it seems like people are split between very cautious and carrying on as normal.
‘I haven’t detected a huge sense of people reigning in their movements – the more uncertainty there is the more we hear about what may or may not happen.
‘All the kinds of environment we thought we had parked with Brexit – there was uncertainty with that and after the election – we had a sense of where things were going – it’s come at the worst time, at a point where things picking up.’
He said that the supply chain issues would disrupt the flows of commerce and that anything that keeps people away from the shops is not helpful.
The food court in Meadowhall in Sheffield just had a hand full of customers today as many decided they would rather stay at home
Some areas of the Lakeside Shopping Centre were extremely quiet today and many shops seemed to have been hit by people staying at home
Richard Hyman from Richard Talks Retail added: ‘I think that Corona is undoubtedly impacting where people go. I have heard a number of reports from retailers that their footfall is down. I think for the moment at least, this will grow. In fact the impact of Corona is much more likely to be from people curbing their shopping patterns and going out less, than from shortages.’
It also said that there was no risk to consumers of catching the disease from products that have been shipped from China.
A report from Retail Economics found that 24 per cent of British retailers across all industries said that supply chain disruption was having a significant impact on their business.
It was also claimed however that seven per cent had enough flexibility to swap.
The advice from Retail Economics also suggested that 45 per cent of retail companies have already seen a negative impact on sales and if the virus continues to spread, three quarters of retailers said they would expect sales to decline.
It looked as though people were also leaving their young children at home in Lakeside as the children’s push cars were seen all lined up
Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent (pictured above) had just a handful of customers today, many of which just seemed to be passing through the centre
It is believed that online retailers could benefit from the spread of the virus in the UK as many avoid going out to the shops and opt for home delivery slots instead.
Online retailer Ocado has already advised customers to order ahead because of the high demand it had been experiencing.
As the retail industry suffers another blow many hotels and holiday lets have seen a dip in bookings as people grow more wary of travelling, while major events from the London Book Fair to university graduations have been hit by a rush of cancellations.
It was also claimed today that restaurant bookings had seen a decline including Pied a Terre, a Michelin-starred restaurant in central London.Its owner, David Moore, told The Telegraph: ‘We have seen lots of cancellations for the next couple of weeks, it’s kind of scary. People aren’t coming out, I usually have 12 tables for lunch – today I had two.’