It may have been the decision to close schools – or it may just have been the reassuring letters from supermarket chief executives promising to keep the shelves stocked – but this morning the local Sainsbury looked like the locusts had been in.
The long standing stripped aisle appearance of the toilet roll, eggs, soap and tinned goods aisles had spread to fresh fruit and veg, biscuits, bread, milk and dairy leaving only a few embarassed looking goods exposed and advertising their unloved status. Small tins of Heinz macaroni cheese clustered alone in the middle of the devastated canned goods aisle like the sole survivors of an asteroid strike. Even at a time of panic shopping, people looked at them and thought…”Nah.”
It changes the psychology of shopping in a wealthy developed economy – in which for years you have been able to take it for granted that just about anything on your list will be in stock in abundance. From being irritated if something on the list wasn’t on the shelf, in less than a week it has become a pleasure to find anything that is.
Meanwhile a rumour that Amazon was introducing a gift wrap option for orders of toilet rolls has – sadly – been denied. The wrap might have come in handy.
Empty shelves in the supermarket are a sign of the breakdown of social trust.
This morning I was looking for an obscure item of shopping; and the supermarket worker who was showing me where it was – and who hitherto hadn’t strayed far from her station at the Deli counter- expressed shock at how many of the shelves had been cleared by panic buying – mostly toilet rolls, soap, staple carbs like pasta and rice. “I’ve never seen it like this” she said. Then paused. “I will be doing my panic buying tomorrow. We have 15% discount.”
When I suggested that essentials should be rationed, she said that at the moment there is no company policy on restricting sales – why would there be if the point of an enterprise is to sell as much as possible as fast as possible? Some public spirited managers were trying to put restrictions on, but this seemed to be in response to particularly over the top purchasing and not especially strong- like the woman who was trying to buy three boxes full of tinned soup. They restricted her to two.
Shop workers themselves – in the absence of a policy – are unable to challenge even the most gratuitous purchases because this is seen as “bad customer relations.” The consumer is king, even at their most anti-social.
Panic buying happens when people are nervous that they will not have access to things they consider essential – because no one is regulating the supply. The result is shortages for those least able to shop on a big scale. Government regulation limiting purchase of essential items should have been put in place pre-emptively. Leaving a situation like this to “the market” to sort out leaves the most vulnerable at the mercy of the hidden hand.