Despite coronavirus hamster shopping, shelves will keep on being filled | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 17.03.2020
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Despite coronavirus hamster shopping, shelves will keep on being filled

Pictures of empty shelves being shared on social media have become a common sight across the world as the coronavirus pandemic spreads. Supermarkets will keep stocking the shelves, but customers must play their part.

Your local supermarket has probably never seemed so important.

In order to "flatten the curve" of new COVID-19 infections, prompted by the dramatic spread of the coronavirus, most European countries and several across the world have taken some of their most drastic measures of the curtailment of public life since World War II.

In Germany, schools, crèches, bars, nightclubs, theatres and all manner of other establishments are closed or will be very soon. On Monday afternoon, it was announced that all "nonessential" shops would close. 

Supermarkets will definitely remain open. And they won't be closing any time soon. They might even be open for longer than usual.

In the world that existed before the novel coronavirus changed everything, supermarkets and grocery stores probably felt like mundane enough places to many in the richer parts of the world. Now, their intrinsic importance to peoples' lives grows by the day.

However, fears over lockdowns and the implications of the pandemic have led to panic buying and hoarding in many parts of the world. 

Watch video 01:50

Coronavirus has German shoppers worried

Social media frenzy

Images of empty shelves, people fighting over toilet roll and long lines of people waiting to enter supermarkets have circulated on social media in recent days.

Britain's leading food retailers met on Monday to work on contingency measures in the wake of the spike in demand. Shelves have been repeatedly emptied of nonperishable goods, leading the British Retail Consortium to publish an open letter.

"We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop," the letter said. 
"We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together."

In Germany, there's a special word for this: hamsterkauf ("hamstering"), explained in detail here. While there have been similar images of empty shelves shared in the country in recent days, the retail industry says that there are currently no significant supply disruptions.

"The supply situation is normal throughout Germany, although there is currently a higher demand for longer-lasting products in individual grocery stores. All food stocks are replenished as part of the deliveries to the shops," said a spokesperson for the HDE, the German Retail Federation.

That said, the combination of many customers buying in larger numbers, at the same time, the subsequent increased demands on producers, warehouses, delivery drivers and supermarkets themselves, means minor logistical bottlenecks will happen for certain goods in certain places.

Shelves keep on being stacked

Supermarkets typically are chain stores, which rely on their parent companies' supply chains and logistic centers, in tandem with delivery companies.

"Our employees in the stores, the logistics centers and the headquarters do an extremely good job nationwide," Kristina Schütz, a spokesperson for the REWE Group, one of Germany's largest retailers, told DW.

"There were no bottlenecks in both the stationary trading and the REWE delivery service despite the high demand for long-life food, food products, canned goods and drugstore items. We have increased or adjusted the frequency of deliveries to REWE and PENNY stores accordingly."

However, the obvious surge in demand has placed pressures on the typical flow from producer to warehouse, warehouse to supermarket storage, storage to shelf.

Earlier this week, REWE issued a call for anybody who wanted to work in its stores to apply directly, without any complications. The call was especially aimed at students affected by university closures.

That points toward the main reason for bottlenecks at this time — overstretched employees, from those in production at one end to those stacking shelves at the other. The combination of increased sick leave, requests to stay at home and extra demands at work as a result of increased consumer demand naturally leads to some delays.

Another complication according to Schütz is increased border controls.

"We are observing the development and are preparing to switch to other countries as a source of supply, depending on the development," she said.

"We are also increasing the stock in our fruit & vegetable warehouses to compensate for possible transport-related fluctuations, as we do not expect the situation to change in the short term."

Watch video 04:21

Coronavirus spreads in Italy and elsewhere

She expects the forthcoming first German harvest to ease some dependence on overseas producers of some fruit and vegetables, for examples peppers and tomatoes.

Keep calm and carry on

While the images shared on social media and the occasional frenzies in certain places will inevitably spook some, there is currently no serious problems in the supply of groceries across Germany and beyond.

The aforementioned logistical problems due to the increased demand has stretched things, but the solution there lies as much in the hands of consumers as it does in the suppliers and supermarkets themselves, with customer restraint strongly advised when shopping.

Many of Germany's states have relaxed the Sunday driving bans for trucks, so deliveries can continue throughout the weekend. The option to extend supermarket opening hours to Sunday remains a possibility. Bavaria has already relaxed the rules on this.

So, the overwhelming message to consumers is: Don't panic. In these strange times we all suddenly find ourselves in, supermarkets have become more than places to buy food in. They are now beacons of normality in an increasingly surreal world. If consumers continue to behave normally in them, it ought to stay that way.