Panic buying is back, not as strong as in March and more localised in Melbourne. Once again shop shelves have been emptied of pasta, toilet paper and other household items.
When will things get back to normal? Soon, more than likely in a matter of days, rather than weeks.
What is different now
Last time most of Australia was involved. Taken by surprise, supermarkets struggled with shoppers across the nation going into “hoard mode” simultaneously.
Normally supermarket supply chains run like well-oiled machines with highly predictable demand. Products move slowly and continuously from factories to distribution centres to stores. Supply chains are “skinny”, with stores ensuring they have just enough stock to meet that demand, particularly for low-margin products like toilet paper that take up a lot of shelf space.
A spike in demand can thus quickly empty shelves. It can prompt other shoppers to also start stockpiling, due to fear of missing out, making the problem worse.
Responding to this situation in March took weeks, as supermarkets adjusted their orders and manufacturers ramped up production to supply more products. The supermarket chains used every trick in the book to balance supply and demand – including imposing limits on the quantity of products shoppers could buy at any one time.
What is happening
This time suppliers are more prepared. Their lean supply chains have built some fat. Inventory has not been at a minimum. Limits on the amount customers can buy have been quickly reintroduced.
So why are shelves empty at all if this time businesses are more responsive?
Well, one thing has not changed: there’s still a lag in supply chains responding to any sudden change in demand.
With toilet paper, for example, orders are generally fulfilled in about ten days. Last time it took about three weeks for more paper to make to it shops.
But, given the information of a spike in demand in Victoria made its way from shops and distributors to manufacturers almost instantly, things should happen faster this time.
Retailers have already moved to answer the call by rerouting deliveries to increase supply where it is needed the most. The only thing stopping supply returning to normal is the speed of transportation and restocking.
Also, the spike in demand is heavily localised in Melbourne. While there have been reports of panic buying and stockpiling in other states, it’s nowhere near the level of a few months ago.
So shortages in Victoria will not be as prolonged as last time. Redirecting inventories will be a lot simpler.
Think of it this way. Panic buying during March was like a big detour in the supply-chain highway given the whole country was involved. Now it is more like a car with a flat tyre reducing traffic speed locally. It’s not less dramatic for the people affected, but much simpler from a supply-chain perspective.
So don’t panic. There’s less reason to join in the panic buying (or stockpiling, if you think of it as a rational response to lockdown) this time. We’re likely to experience these disruptions so long as COVID-19 outbreaks continue. The “new normal” is like a faulty switch. Regions will be on and off the spot until the pandemic is over.
But as long as the entire nation does not move backwards all at the same time, supply chains from one state will quickly support the one experiencing difficulties.
There’s really no reason for you to add to the problem.
Panic buying has returned to Australia in the wake of its second-biggest city experiencing a spike in COVID-19. The Victorian government has reimposed stay-at-home restrictions on 36 of Melbourne’s 321 suburbs in response.
Once again supermarket stores are being emptied of toilet paper and other consumables.
But this panic buying isn’t just in affected areas. It’s not even limited to Victoria. Empty supermarket shelves have been reported in Canberra, Mittagong in the New South Wales southern highlands, and Bathurst in the NSW central tablelands.
As a preventative measure Coles and Woolworths have reintroduced nationwide limits on the amount of toilet paper shoppers can buy. Coles is also limiting packets of pasta, rice and long-life milk nationally, while Woolworths has so far done so only for Victoria.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called the panic buying “ridiculous”, and previously dubbed it “unAustralian”.
But are admonishments helpful in stopping panic buying?
That depends on what motivates people to panic buy. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us the chance to ask.
What motivates panic buying?
We’ve surveyed more than 600 Australians, first in April then again in June, about their stockpiling behaviour, attitudes and feelings.
Our results show about 17% of shoppers admitted to panic buying in April. About 6% were continuing to stockpile two months later, joined by an equal number who did not buy in April and feared missing out again.
Panic buyers and stockpilers were more likely to be younger and under financial and personal stress. A number of personality traits were also significant predictors. Those less agreeable, more anxious and less able to cope with uncertainty were more likely to panic buy.
These findings suggest panic buyers are likely to feel a lack of control in their lives and worry more about COVID-19. Stocking up on items gives them a sense of security in one part of their lives. They are likely to be less cooperative and considerate of others.
Studying panic buying
We recruited our 600 participants via consumer-survey company Pure Profile, which ensured our sample was representative of the Australian population.
We asked if they had “stockpiled”, and how much, in response to COVID-19, as well as questions about their income, education attainment, attitudes and personality.
Participants indicated their agreement with more than 100 statements such as:
I am someone who is emotionally stable, not easily upset
I spend too much time following COVID-19 related news coverage
Obtaining food and basic household items has been a major source of stress.
The strongest predictor of “early” panic buying was low “agreeableness”.
Agreeableness describes how motivated people are to cooperate with and consider the feelings of others. It is typically expressed as polite and compassionate behaviour. We measured this trait by asking respondents to agree or disagree with statements such as “I am someone who is sometimes rude to people” and “I am someone who can be cold and uncaring”.
The second strongest predictor was high “neuroticism”.
Neuroticism describes a person’s experience of negative emotions such as worry, anxiety and uncertainty. Those with this trait tend to agree with statements such as “I often feel sad” or “I am temperamental and get emotional easily”.
High scorers experience negative emotions more intensely and more often. Our data shows that 22% of high scorers on neuroticism reported panic buying compared to 12% who scored low.
Our results also suggest these individuals are driven to stockpile to limit their need to go to the supermarket as much as fear of store supplies running out.
Stress also appears to be a significant factor. Panic buyers in our survey were significantly more likely to have been stood down or had their hours reduced due to COVID-19.
Those 32 and younger were about 40% more likely to have panic bought than those older. This is likely due to the economic impacts hitting younger workers hardest, as well as young families generally facing more financial and domestic strain.
Panic buyers also reported more time worrying about COVID-19, and more conflict in their household as a result of the pandemic.
Fear of missing out
The fear of missing out was the main predictor of respondents stockpiling in June. More than half these “late” stockpilers did not do so in April. They were far more likely to agree with the statement “Difficulties in obtaining basic household has been a major source of stress” than the April panic buyers.
So while panic buying is indeed more common in “selfish” people, it might also serve as a coping mechanism. People who experience higher levels of instability and uncertainty – due to personality disposition and/or their life circumstances have been disrupted – are most likely to panic buy and stockpile.
Australian supermarket giant Woolworths has announced its single biggest investment in logistics infrastructure, spending A$780 million to replace up to 1,300 workers with robots.
It plans to build one semi-automated and one fully automated distribution centre in south-west Sydney. About 650 jobs will be created at the new centres, to open in 2024. Three existing centres (two in Sydney, one in Melbourne) will close as a result.
Woolworths’ chief supply chain officer, Paul Graham, emphasised the safety benefits of automation:
Cutting-edge automation will build tailored pallets for specific aisles in individual stores – helping us improve on-shelf product availability with faster restocking, reducing congestion in stores, and enabling a safer work environment for our teams with less manual handling.
In these COVID-conscious times that’s the obvious spin.
But it’s true this is a response to the changes being wrought on the retail sector by COVID-19.
The principal change is a matter of pace. COVID-19 has turbocharged the shift to online shopping. Even as social-distancing rules ease, this trend will consolidate. Many bricks-and-mortar shops are in trouble, particularly those in shopping centres.
Retail will also be shaped by how COVID-19 has changed our shopping behaviour, with thrift and value being important.
More automated fulfilment centres are part of meeting these online demands. Of course, such investments were already on the radar.
In March 2019, Coles announced an exclusive deal to use the “end-to-end online grocery shopping solution” developed by Ocado, a British online supermarket chain that has no stores, only warehouses. Its technology spans the online shopping experience, automated fulfilment and home delivery.
The Coles plan included two new “highly automated” customer fulfilment centres in Melbourne and Sydney, to be ready in 2023. Coles also announced plans for two new automated distribution centres in Queensland and NSW, costing A$700 million, in October 2018.
Woolworths itself has already opened the Melbourne South Regional Distribution Centre, whose automated features are hyped in the following promotional video.
So these latest moves are part of a trend, albeit one unexpectedly accelerated by COVID-19. And once consumers try new channels, studies show, they are likely to stick with them.
The future is dark
At the other end of the supply chain, the shift to online shopping has created demand for “dark stores” – essentially, stores without customers. These smaller, decentralised facilities, located in suburbs rather than industrial parks, are designed to pick and dispatch online orders quickly.
Woolworths opened its first dark store in Sydney in 2014. Coles opened its first in Melbourne in 2016. Existing stores are also being repurposed as dark stores. In April 2020, Australia’s Kmart temporarily converted three stores to use as fulfilment centres.
Such moves may become permanent, as shoppers demand faster delivery times and physical store assets become less viable as “traditional” retail businesses.
Existing stores are also being adapted to respond to customer demands for faster, more efficient online shopping. In January 2020, Woolworths began building its first “eStore” – an automated facility adjoining its supermarket in Carrum Downs, Melbourne.
Fewer, smaller stores
As online shopping increasingly provides greater revenue streams for retailers, more physical store closures are also on the cards.
In May, Kmart’s owner, Wesfarmers, announced it would shut 75 of its Target stores (and convert the rest to Kmart stores). Also looking to downsize are Australian department store icons Myer and David Jones, which have accelerated their plans to reduce floor space 20% by 2025.
Footwear giant Accent Group – which owns more than a dozen shoe brands and has more than 500 stores in Australia and New Zealand – is planning to close 28 stores and focus more on online sales.
As online revenues grow, expect more “right-sizing” and closures.
Repurposing shopping centres
All these closures will add to the woes of shopping centres.
Though crowds reportedly surged back to centres when “lockdown” restrictions were eased, growing awareness that the pandemic is not over and social distancing protocols continue to create consumer anxiety.
Until people feel safe shopping, dining and gathering in crowded public places, consumer aversion will remain.
In response to these COVID-conscious times, shopping centres will endeavour to enhance those aspects of the shopping experience, such as sensory elements and entertainment, which the online shopping experience can’t provide.
The retail mix will change: fewer fashion and general merchandise shops, and more services such as medical centres, offices and childcare centres.
Opportunities for smaller retailers
One bright spot may be for local and independent shops.
Smaller retailers can often adapt faster than larger ones. Smaller community pharmacies, for example, implemented social distancing and hygiene measures more easily than larger retailers, due mainly to their smaller size and having less traffic.
There are opportunities to leverage shoppers’ desire to support local shopkeepers, producers and growers. Locally made goods and services are also less likely to have long supply chains that will impede overseas deliveries while COVID-19 is uncontained.
But they’ll still need to sort out their online shopping experience.
It’s wrong to expect a “snap-back” at shopping centres, food courts, cinemas and other places where people used to gather to spend money.
We’ve identified three reasons why spending in physical stores on goods like clothes is likely to remain much lower than it was for a long time.
1. Fear, much of it age-based
First, even when governments relax restrictions, lots of people will still be worried and will go out less. Unless there are zero cases for several weeks in a state or city, many people will remain reluctant to go out.
This is why we have previously argued that there is a big dividend in eliminating COVID-19 in the style of New Zealand, the Northern Territory, and South Australia, rather than bumping along with “suppression” – and several new locally-acquired cases a day – as Victoria is still doing.
This reluctance to go out and spend, irrespective of government restrictions, could be seen in Australia before government restrictions were imposed, as shown on the “Consumers and mobility” tab of the Grattan Econ Tracker.
Spending in Sweden has fallen almost as much as in Denmark, even when Denmark was in lockdown and Sweden had minimal restrictions. Swedes are afraid to go out, particularly if they are old.
Spending by people aged 70+ has fallen further in Sweden than in Denmark, and 60-69 year-olds have cut their spending by about the same amount in both countries.
This isn’t surprising. COVID-19 is much more deadly for older people.
Age-based fear is a challenge for retailers because older households now spend significantly more than younger households. 25 years ago it was the other way around.
2. Time to form new habits
Second, we are likely to keep spending on different things, and using different channels, even after restrictions are lifted.
Habits tend to form when behaviour changes consistently. They strengthen over time, and are particularly sticky once behaviour has been consistent for a period of months – and we’ve been living with lockdown for that long in Australia.
Once formed, the new habits can persist unless there is another shock.
These tactics are extremely costly and have failed to stamp out retail theft.
Now supermarkets are trying a different tactic, that’s part overt surveillance but also encourages “self-reflection” on any impulse to exploit loopholes in the bagging and payment systems.
In late May Australian supermarket giant Woolworths confirmed it is trialling self-service checkout terminals with built-in cameras. They display your image as you scan your items. Rival Coles started trying the technology in April 2019.
The idea is that watching yourself scan your own groceries will reduce the temptation to steal. It is supported by research that shows the effectiveness of cues that cause us to self-focus and self-regulate.
Retail theft continues to grow
Since 1990, when the Australian Insitute of Criminology published extensive research on retail crime and its prevention, it has been widely accepted crime-related losses account for about 1% of all retail revenue. Estimates of customer theft were woolier.
In August 2019 the Australia and New Zealand Retail Crime Survey came up with a specific number. It reported total crime-related retail losses amounted to 0.92% of revenue. Customer crime was 58% of that – or 0.53% of total revenue.
Though funded by retail technology company Checkpoint Systems, the survey sample is robust – almost a quarter of the retail industry in Australia and New Zealand. Also, the lead researcher, Emmeline Taylor, is a criminologist in the Department of Sociology at City, University of London respected for her expertise in retail crime.
Costs of loss prevention
Writing about her research in 2018, Taylor tells the story of a major Australian supermarket discovering it was selling more carrots than it had in stock.
Unfortunately this wasn’t a sudden switch to healthy eating or a desire to increase vitamin C intake, it was an early sign of a new type of shoplifter. Otherwise honest shoppers were using the self-service checkout to transact more expensive items – typically avocados – and put them through as carrots.
She termed these self-service checkout thieves “SWIPERS” – seemingly well-
intentioned patrons engaging in routine shoplifting. As the Australia and New Zealand Retail Crime Survey states:
Their behaviour and motivations (that are often interlinked) fall into four main groups: the accidental thieves, the switchers of labels, those compensating themselves, and those that steal because they claim to have become frustrated with the process of self-checkout (e.g. triggering alerts or purchasing age-restricted items that require assistance from an employee).
The traditional approach to loss prevention involves attendants and security guards, specialised display fixtures, reinforced packaging, training, in-store signage, display alarms and more cameras.
More of these can prove counter-productive, as highlighted by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s analysis of local crime prevention strategies in 2014. It found, for example, that introducing surveillance systems or security guards made shop staff less likely to approach suspicious shoppers.
Getting away with it
The research by Taylor and others into the motivators of shoplifting points to the potential of another way to reinforce honest behaviour.
While some forms of stealing might be considered irrational – such as kleptomania – shoplifters often rationalise their thefts.
How much they steal comes down to their own “deviance threshold” – the point at which they can no longer justify their behaviour alongside a self-perception as a good person. This helps explains the greater frequency of shoplifting lower value items. It’s easier to justify a small “discount” on your bill.
If it’s just a small theft, also, the chances of getting caught are smaller. If caught, the chance of getting away – passing it off as an honest mistake, perhaps – is higher. This semi-conscious calculation is known as the “denial of punishment probability”.
You are being watched
An obvious strategy for retailers is to make shoppers more aware they are being watched.
Research has demonstrated “eyes” images do this more effectively than images of security cameras or written reminders such as “you are being observed”. This is due to eyes triggering instincts connected to our evolutionary capacity for gaze detection – sensitivity to being watched.
Newcastle University researchers Max Ernest-Jonesa, Daniel Nettleb and Melissa Bateson did an experiment in a campus cafeteria and found that posters featuring eye images resulted in less litter being left on tables than images of flowers, but less so when the café was busier.
The more people around the more we relax. Those “eyes” can’t be watching everyone.
Think of yourself
A more effective tactic might be appealing to another honed evolutionary instinct: a “think of yourself” focus.
University of East Anglia researcher Rose Melaeady and colleagues demonstrated this with experiments using signs to encourage drivers to turn off their engines at a busy rail crossing with a two-minute average wait.
After an experiment just using an “watching eyes” image (with no discernible effect) they tried two signs.
One with set of human eyes and the words: “When barriers are down, switch off your engine”
The other with just the words: “Think of yourself: When barriers are down, switch off your engine.”
With no sign, 20% of drivers switched off their engines. With the watching eyes sign, 30% switched off. With the “think of yourself” sign, 51% did so.
So the supermarkets’ self-surveillance strategy combines two tactics. First, a “traditional” external motivation to do the right thing – amplifying the spotlight effect with an overt reminder we are being watched. Second, it is also intended to evoke self-reflection and self-regulation.
These steps will likely add to concerns about personal privacy, though Woolworths and Coles say no recordings are being made.
Even if they were, though, the embrace of cashless transactions – with just 27% of all payments now made with cash – suggests most customers aren’t overtly concerned about how much others know about their shopping habits.
Fabric producers in Tier 2 and cotton spinners in Tier 3 have had to contend with a decreased supply of raw materials and demands to retool to produce medical equipment.
For cotton growers in Tier 4, the fall in demand has pushed prices down from US 70 cents at the start of the year to US 50 cents, the lowest price in a decade, before a partial recovery to US 58 cents.
…with human costs
Reports of losses of tens of thousands of jobs in Myanmar and Cambodia paint a bleak picture.
In Bangladesh estimates have 1.92 million workers at risk of losing their jobs as factories receive notice of US$2.58 billion worth of export orders cancelled or on-hold.
Making things worse, many workers in Tiers 1-3 were receiving less than a living wage defined as the minimum needed to provide adequate shelter, food and necessities. This has made it hard for them to plan or save for emergencies.
The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a legally-binding agreement between brands and unions set up in the wake of the collapse of the the Rana Plaza factory in 2013 which killed 1,133 people and critically injuring thousands more.
Inspections under the program have been suspended, as have audits due to the closure of borders.
The problems are cumulative – delays in orders due to interruptions in supplies will need to be addressed when factories scale back up, creating demands from buyers that might result in pressure for workers to work unpaid and involuntary overtime, or even worse, subcontract to the informal market where there is a high risk of human rights violations.
Companies along the value chain have been asked to produce and supply medical equipment such as surgical gowns, face masks and materials and elastics.
Dozens of brands and retailers have donated funds and activated their logistics networks to support the effort.
As orders slowly start returning, cotton and textile associations have joined forces in calling for greater collaboration throughout the value chain. Governments have announced aid packages for their workers, and the European Union has provided an emergency fund to support the most vulnerable garment workers in Myanmar.
Longer term, the supply risks highlighted by the disruption might cause companies along the value chain to diversify their suppliers and even produce locally.
The crisis has demonstrated forcefully the importance for manufacturers and retailers to be agile. Yet this can best be done when workers have been well trained and have access to the best technology and equipment.
For now, we watch and see. Cotton is as good an indicator as any other of the brittleness of supply chains and the ways in which what we produce and consume affects the livelihoods of those further down the chain.
In the short-term, a best-case scenario would see a revaluing of garment work as “essential” in order to produce protective/medical equipment that we need in a way that benefits the people who help make them.
Extreme shortages of toilet paper, pasta and other pantry products defined the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic for many shoppers around the world. Availability of most these goods has returned to normal.
But not for baking goods – flour in particular.
In Britain the flour shortage has led to the thousand-year-old Sturminster Newton Mill, established in 1016, cranking back into production. Sales by small artisan outfits – such as the Shipton Mill, mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 – have surged. It’s the same in France.
So why are there flour shortages from Europe to the United States and Australia?
The answer is both simple and complex.
It is partly to do with the basic economics of demand and supply. Demand for baking ingredients has spiked because people staying home (and not going to restaurants or cafes) cook more.
More fundamentally it is about the structure of concentrated food distribution systems geared to supply commercial rather than retail demand.
The inflexibility of those channels highlights a key issue in discussions about food security – that is, ensuring people have access to food. It is not just a matter of how much food is produced but how it is distributed.
Changing consumption patterns
Supermarket shortages of toilet paper and pasta were mostly attributed to a surge in demand driven by panic-buying and stockpiling, along with a lag in supply chains geared to provide just enough product to stores to avoid storing inexpensive but bulky inventory.
As stock disappeared from supermarket shelves, other consumers afraid of being caught short also started buying more than they normally would. Responding to that surge in demand and increasing supply took producers time – usually at least a month.
But a less-discussed part of the problem was the shift in consumption patterns, as stay-at-home rules resulted in toilet paper demand from workplaces and public buildings declining and home demand increasing. And the toilet paper that commercial buyers want is different to what people buy for themselves.
In the case of flour, the split between supplying commercial and retail demand has been an even more significant factor.
Until the pandemic, retail demand was a small (and diminishing) part of the flour market. In Britain, for example, it represented just 4% of flour consumption. The rest went to commercial bakers and food manufacturers.
While the quality of flour commercial users buy is not necessarily different, the size of the packages in which they buy is – bags of 12, 25 of 32 kilograms, rather than the 1kg or 2kg bags that home bakers prefer.
With home demand spiking – in Australia, for example, retail flour sales rose 140% in March – the large flour-milling operations quickly reached the limits of their equipment and processes to package flour in smaller bags.
Hence the supermarket shortages – and the opportunity that presented for boutique millers.
Also contributing to the slowness of flour millers in responding to higher retail demand (compared to eggs, for instance) is the level of industry concentration.
Concentration in the supermarket sector has not helped either. Increasingly, supermarket chains cut out intermediaries (wholesalers) from their supply chains and buy directly from producers. This has made changing their sources more difficult.
Production versus distribution
The rigidity of food supply chains in responding to changes in consumption by moving food distribution from commercial to retail channels can also be seen in cases of European and American farmers reportedly pouring milk down the drain and leaving vegetables to rot in their fields.
So you finally hit the shops and cafes after weeks of lockdown.
After disinfecting your hands, following the arrows around the shop or to your table, taking care to avoid others where possible and, in some cases, providing your contact tracing details – how enjoyable was the experience, really?
The return to shopping and eating out has certainly come as welcome relief in those countries lucky enough to be opening up. The malls are open! You can book your favourite restaurant! Goodbye home cooking, hello table service!
And for the retail and hospitality industries, among the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, the return to trading couldn’t come fast enough.
The return to normal trading, however, could still be a way off.
The new economic reality will have a profound impact on retail. Some of the routines developed during lockdown, such as cooking and baking at home or foregoing daily takeaway coffees, may continue post-pandemic if money is tight.
Shopping as a sensory experience will change
As well as the public spacing, tracing and hygiene rules, customers may also notice an absence of certain favourite experiential elements. Is a trip to Mecca Cosmetics as enjoyable when you can’t sample the products? Will Peter Alexander still smell like a cosy bedroom or the disinfectant used to clean the store?
As consumers, our senses play a major role in how much we enjoy retail experiences. Retailers have long employed the art of store atmospherics to encourage us to stay and spend.
The new COVID-19 environment has changed all that.
Will shoppers now prefer a reassuring freshly cleaned smell? The Hyatt hotel chain’s “seamless” scent (evocative of home and comfort) was an integral part of its brand experience. But the rival Hilton chain has just announced its CleanStay initiative in partnership with the manufacturer of Lysol disinfectant.
Reduced sound levels might help anxious consumers relax, but what will the atmosphere be like in a painfully quiet pub or restaurant? It could influence customer perceptions of the establishment, which in turn affect financial returns. Studies have found people bought more drinks in a bar when the music was louder than usual.
Such measures confound conventional retail theory, which suggests the more consumers touch, sort through, sample and try on, the more they buy. The removal of testers for products such as cosmetics, for example, significantly changes the shopping experience.
Don’t stand so close to me
Retailers in countries entering winter will also need to think quite literally about the atmosphere in their stores. Warmer temperatures tend to create a relaxing environment that encourages shoppers to linger. And physical warmth can even enhance the perceived value of products. But poorly ventilated or air-conditioned indoor spaces have been identified as potential hot spots for the spread of COVID-19.
Will warmer stores subconsciously affect the way shoppers react? Restaurateurs and retailers will be hoping not.
Paradoxically, the advice to keep our distance in public can lead to perceived crowding – a psychological state based on the number of individuals in a store, the extent of social interactions and the configuration of merchandise and fixtures. Higher levels of perceived crowding can lead to less positive emotions and decreased satisfaction.
Ultimately, if retailers and hospitality service providers want customers to return in greater numbers the goal will be to minimise the perceived risks of infection. Emotionally taxing environments can negatively affect consumer behaviour, so managing the emotional component of the retail or dining experience becomes an even more crucial part of the overall value offered.
Adapting so-called “retail theatre” to include sanitation, hygiene, and keeping consumers calm will create a new kind of psychological comfort for the COVID-19 age. But how far will some go to give themselves an edge over competitors?
How readily customers become comfortable with the etiquette of post-pandemic shopping will dictate how effectively retail and hospitality can provide that vital sense of well-being. In time, the words “retail” and “therapy” may again sit comfortably in the same sentence.
Some countries, particularly those with higher rates of COVID-19 than Australia, provide different advice. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States recommend the use of masks, or cloth face coverings, more widely.
In Hong Kong, face masks are obligatory for everyone taking public transport.
We should first separate the two distinct functions of a face mask: protecting others from being infected by a wearer, and protecting the wearer from infection.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is transmitted via droplets that fly out of our mouths or nose: most commonly when when we cough or sneeze, but also when we speak.
Most of these particles range in size between 0.3-10 micrometers. They can be directly inhaled or land on a surface where we pick them up on our hands before touching our face.
The current thinking is face masks worn by an infected person can protect the people around them by filtering at least some of these particles, particularly larger ones. This constitutes the former of the two functions, and is known as “source control”.
Regarding the latter – protecting the wearer from infection – there’s some research on this, but not for COVID-19 specifically.
Evidence has shown the use of masks among health-care workers can reduce their infection with various other coronaviruses – so masks are an important element of PPE.
But for people in the community who appear to be healthy, we need more research before we can draw firm conclusions on the benefits of masks.
Are you doing it wrong?
Whatever the state of the science, some people appear to be doing things that could defeat the purpose of wearing a mask. Examples include pulling the mask under their chin for a “breather” or to make a phone call; or touching the mask while wearing it.
Through these actions, you can transfer the virus directly from your hands or your mobile phone to your face, increasing your risk of being infected.
The WHO has published some dos and don’ts for wearing face masks, summarised here:
What about gloves?
Gloves prevent the transmission of germs if used properly, and are an integral part of PPE for health-care workers.
If you’re suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 and you’re isolating at home, Australian guidelines recommend anyone wanting to clean your room should put on a mask and gloves before entering.
However, gloves have not been recommended as a precautionary measure against COVID-19 for the average citizen. That’s largely because of the evidence we have about how the disease is, and isn’t, transmitted.
The virus is not absorbed through skin, so you can’t contract COVID-19 through touch alone. To acquire coronavirus through touch, you would have to touch a contaminated surface and then touch your face.
Although it is possible, scientists believe a much smaller proportion of infections happen this way, as compared to when an uninfected person inhales virus-carrying droplets emitted directly from an infected person.
When our reliance on supermarkets is seriously disrupted – for example, by spikes in demand due to panic buying or the flooding of distribution centres – we are left with few alternatives. Supermarkets are central to our everyday lives, but they have also become symbols of our vulnerability in times of disruption.
The COVID-19 crisis has caused us to rethink many things we took for granted. This includes the plentiful supply of a great variety of food at relatively stable prices in our supermarkets.
Supermarkets were a 1930s success story that began during the Great Depression. The world’s first supermarket, King Kullen, opened with the enduring principle of “Pile it high, sell it low!” King Kullen became the standard model of supermarket operations with globally interconnected supply chains.
While this model epitomised the trend of globalisation, during the second world war more local food production was encouraged in the form of “victory gardens”. These made a significant contribution to food security during the war years. It was a demonstration of what can be achieved in times of crisis.
Contingency planning is about being clear on your Plan B or Plan C if Plan A hits trouble. It’s about asking the “what if” questions. As a planning tool, this enables systems to build resilience to disruption by identifying other pathways to achieve desired outcomes.
The difference between now and the 1930s is that today we are vastly more connected at a global scale. Within our food-supply chains, we can use the knowledge that comes from this greater connectivity to ask different “what if” questions.
For example, what if a pandemic and a severe weather event overlapped, disrupting critical transport infrastructure? How could we adapt?
Or what if several Australian states experienced serious disruptions to food supply at the same time? How could we ensure timely resupply?
Recent experiences of empty supermarket shelves remind us of the importance of such questions.
Greater self-sufficiency is sensible and practical. Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience makes clear that we should understand the risks we live with – in this case, our deep-seated and often unquestioned dependency on long food-supply chains.
These questions highlight the need to think about ways to complement and enhance existing arrangements for supplying food. Our research identifies several immediate opportunities to promote shorter food-supply chains and devise contingency food plans:
2. Local businesses can embed contingency arrangements to ensure access to locally produced food within their business continuity plans, building greater capacity to keep business and local economies operating in difficult times.
3. Supermarkets can advocate for and support shorter food-supply chains by sourcing food products locally where possible and championing “buy local” campaigns.
4. An active undertaking to identify and map the regional food bowls of each city and township will support contingency plans.
5. Local councils can help make it possible to grow much more of the food we need, even in relatively dense towns and cities. This can range from potted herbs on apartment balconies, through to broccoli in suburban backyards to intensive farming operations in big industrial estate sheds or rooftops. Municipal parks that feature little more than lawn can devote some space to community gardens, while more rigorous land-use planning regimes can protect market gardening near urban centres.
Societies have faced significant food and health crises over the centuries. Now, though, we have almost real-time data on food production, stocks and supply chains. Would it not be sensible to strengthen local food systems that can complement our supermarkets and global networks?
If we don’t do this, the only lesson we will have learned from the coronavirus crisis is to start hoarding baked beans, toilet paper and hand sanitiser as soon as we first hear of a looming disaster.