Recent panic buying “compares to nothing” that Tumut Coles Store Manager Jane Barton has ever experienced. Next month, Jane will celebrate 40 years at the store, but said she’s not sure if there will be an anniversary celebration with how hectic life has been for the grocery store since fear started spreading about the coronavirus.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.
“We’ve had floods and things like that, but this is unprecedented panic.”
To protect the most vulnerable, Coles and Woolies have been implementing a “Community Hour” each morning, restricting the first hour of shopping (7-8am), Monday to Friday, to seniors aged 65 or older plus those with disabilities or concession cards. ID must be presented to staff at the front door, along with a pensioner card, commonwealth seniors health card, companion card or health care card.
Seniors hour at Woolies runs Wednesday to Friday, 7am to 8am. Woolies has also stopped doing pick ups until further notice.
Both stores close at 8pm daily to allow staff to restock shelves. Saturdays and Sundays, the stores open at 7am to the general public.
The problem, according to Jane, is not the virus or any shortage in stock, but the reactions from the general public.
“We’re never going to be totally out of stock, it’s just that if people buy normally, we’ll be fine.”
There have been rumours spreading through the community about visitors from the cities coming to smaller areas to buy in-demand items, but the staff at Coles haven’t seen or heard any evidence of that happening firsthand.
Regular deliveries continue to Coles stores across the nation, with no genuine shortage of products. That fact doesn’t provide much comfort for shoppers like Tumut father James Eastlake. Mr Eastlake has four kids at home – two girls and two boys – and two more girls moving back home from the cities soon. The six kids, plus James and his wife, make a family of eight, who are quickly going to run out of toilet paper.
“It’s difficult. To find everything you need, mainly toilet paper for us.”
The two eldest Eastlake girls had to leave the cities, indirectly because of coronavirus. For Kristen, university holidays at the University of Wollongong were brought forward. For Bonnie, there aren’t many jobs going for a recent graduate in Fashion Design, even with distinctions and high distinctions from the prestigious Whitehouse Institute of Design.
James had been to Woolworths on Wednesday morning and Coles on Wednesday afternoon and was going to try again in the evening.
“Empty shelves,” were all he found.
“We’re trying to [help calm people down],” said Coles Store Manager Jane Barton.
“We’re just saying you don’t really need to hoard things. It’s about being sensible about the whole thing.”
For every empty shelf in the store, she said more products are coming. Staff are no longer telling shoppers when the deliveries will arrive, because they don’t want people lining up to snap up the goods, creating an environment of panic and further fueling the buying frenzy.
Jane shared a story of one shopper who waited for close to five hours in her car for an evening delivery.
“[Out of stock items] will be coming back in,” Jane promised.
“We can only do what we can do from the store level. Keep in mind that there’s pressure on stock. Every store across the country is in the same boat.”
Lynette Smith, a blue ribbon cake decorator at this year’s Tumut Show, can’t find flour or sugar. That’s especially important because she’s been baking an average of six cakes a week, plus biscuits, muffins and other treats, for the Adelong BlazeAid camp. She tried both Coles and Woolies on Wednesday, without any luck.
“I’m going to have to find recipes without flour in them, aren’t I,” she said. “I have about two kilos [of flour] at home, but that’s going to have to really stretch.”
Lynette and her twin grandsons, 9-year-old Miles and Reuben Hartwig, donated their prize-winning cakes from the Tumut Show and cakes they had been preparing for the now-cancelled Batlow and Tumbarumba Shows.
Lynette’s chooks lay enough eggs to keep her in steady supply
“It’s kinda’ funny,” said Reuben, “No toilet paper!”
“We only have one roll,” said Miles.
“We have been using paper rolls for toilet rolls,” explained Reuben, describing how they cut paper towels in half as a substitute.
“It feels a little bit dry!” he exclaimed.
With innocent optimism, Miles said he felt the pandemic was “about 40 days” from being over, reasoning that the bushfires had just gotten finished. His primary concern was that too many trees were going to get cut down and there’d be none left to climb.
“I think it’s stupid, because the bushfires, everyone got in and helped and everything like that,” said Lynette, “And then some silly idiot puts on Facebook that we need toilet paper [and there’s chaos].
“Excuse me, this virus does not affect your a***, it affects your chest.”
Despite the lack of baking ingredients, Lynette and the boys remained cheerful throughout their shopping trip, noting that most people were patient in the shops.
At Coles, Jane Barton said most shoppers have been “great” and while there’s been negative comments made on social media, there’s been very little negativity in the store.
“The team are doing the best they can, they’re doing a great job,” said Jane. Coles staff can’t always maintain the social distancing guidelines, which requires keeping a space of one to one-and-a-half metres between people, but they have sanitzer “readily available” and they keep as much distance as realistically possible.
“It’s always going to be the way in a supermarket, you do get all walks of life,” she said, commenting that the staff are all in good health and feeling positive.
“Maybe we’ve built up a good immune system over the years.”
The lesson for the community, Jane said, is to practice restraint.
“If you don’t need it, it will come in. At the moment, a lot of shelves look empty, but the supplies will consistently be coming in.”
For supermarkets in Tumut, the top priority remains keeping shoppers calm as the coronavirus pandemic plays out and suppliers adjust to a new normal.
Temporary Limits on supermarket items:
As of March 18, Coles is allowing one pack of toilet paper per shopper and two of each of the following:
Pasta, Rice, Flour, Grocery milk, Canned tomatoes, Pasta sauce, Meal bases, Tissues, Paper towels, Hand sanitizer, Liquid soaps, Eggs, Chilled pasta, Fresh white milk, Mince meat, Frozen vegetables, Frozen chips, Frozen fruit, Frozen desserts
As of March 18, Woolworths is limiting customers to two items from any single category on most packaged products across the store. There is a one pack limit per customer, per shop on the following:
Toilet paper, Baby wipes, Antibacterial wipes, Paper towel, Serviettes, Rice (2kg and over)