Coles is selling a week’s worth of toilet paper, pasta, hand sanitiser, and rice every day – but can’t get canned tuna off its shelves.
Stores are stripped bare in minutes by unceasing panic buying as Australians are forced to work from home and stay indoors by coronavirus lockdowns.
Toilet paper was infamously the first to disappear, thanks to viral social media posts, and is still selling 20 million rolls a week, but now the plundering is across the board.
The supermarket giant now faces its hardest test with customers set to stampede into its shops over Easter – the second biggest weekend of the year.
Coles is pulling out all the stops to deal with unprecedented demand, including hiring 14,000 extra staff and redesigning its supply chain.
Coles is selling a week’s worth of toilet paper, pasta, hand sanitiser, and rice every day
Stores are stripped bare in minutes by unceasing panic buying as Australians are forced to work from home and stay indoors by coronavirus lockdowns
People queuing for a delivery of toilet paper, paper towel and pasta at Coles in Epping in Sydney – items that the supermarket has struggled to keep on shelves
Chief operations officer Matthew Swindells said all the products customers have found hard to find were selling at a rate of a week’s worth of stock per day.
These included toilet paper, pasta, hand sanitiser, rice, tissues, paper towel, some cleaning and hygiene products, and even canned vegetables.
‘It’s not small movement away from the usual demand, it’s very much extreme and continual,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
Mr Swindells said customer behaviour shifted quickly and unpredictably and trends were already changing this week, with cake mix and baking goods seeing a surge.
‘You can see customers are now doing more home cooking as they are working from home or have lost their jobs, but then they get sick of it,’ he said.
‘There’s a burst of fresh produce where people are cooking from scratch and eating healthy, and then it will shift into confectionery and sugary drinks, and back again.’
Surry Hills Coles had just a few packets of pasta looking lonely in its devastated aisle after being hit by the first wave of panic buying last month
Much of Coles Surry Hills’ canned vegetable section was also obliterated by panicked shoppers
If you wanted rice from the Coles in Surry Hills you were limited to a few sacks of jasmine rice, the rest was all gone
Coles trends amid coronavirus pandemic
- Shoppers still plundering Coles shelves with week’s worth of some products going every day
- Toilet paper, pasta, hand sanitiser, rice, tissues, paper towel, cleaning and hygiene products, and canned vegetables among hardest hit
- Canned tuna not selling even compared to usual and no one knows why
- Customers flick between buying healthy and cooking, and grabbing junk food for home snacks
- Easter eggs only started getting bought this week
- Mornings are busy and every day is about the same as most people are at home
- Most shoppers are following advice to shop alone and are coming less less often to buy more at once
- Coles hired 10,000 extra staff and is looking for 4,000 more
- Customer limits came in on Monday but only 5-10 per cent of stores have queues as a result
- Demand is too high for delivery to be open to more than the elderly
But despite canned tuna being the one meat that will keep for a long time without being frozen, no one is buying it.
Mr Swindells admitted he can’t work out why the overlooked product is piling up on shelves even when heavily discounted.
‘Tinned fish is always very popular this time of year because of Easter and it’s held up really well, but tinned tomatoes have really struggled,’ he said.
‘Maybe we should remind people that it’s Lent.’
Easter egg sales have finally started to take off this week after it was much slower than previous years for the past month.
‘It’s like the country has suddenly decided we’re doing Easter,’ he said.
The vast majority of Australians working from home, or becoming unemployed, is also showing up on the sales sheet.
The meat shelf of Coles Bondi Junction pictured in late March completely bare
But despite canned tuna being the one meat that will keep for a long time without being frozen, no one is buying it
Coles bosses can’t work out why the overlooked product is piling up on shelves even when heavily discounted
On-the-go items like ready meals and confectionery initially dived as offices emptied, but are making a comeback as workers grow weary of indoor life.
‘As people stay home they are snacking more so confectionery has caught up, and ready meals have recovered this week,’ Mr Swindells said.
When and how Australians shop has also radically changed by government orders to stay home unless absolutely necessary.
Instead of sales and customers peaking on weekends, it is now flat from day to day – and much higher than even the biggest Sunday shops.
‘We are getting fewer customers through the doors because people are shopping less frequently, but their basket size is much bigger,’ Mr Swindells said.
‘There are more people shopping in the morning so if you were a savvy shopper you’d come in the afternoon.
‘We used to get the after 3pm school run and the after work run, but they’ve fallen away.’
A desperate man brings a chair and cup of TEA to sit inside a Coles supermarket as he patiently waits for staff to stock up toilet paper amid coronavirus crisis
Coles hired 10,000 extra staff in the past three weeks – many being workers laid off as the hospitality industry closed overnight in stage 1 lockdowns – and wants another 4,000
Mr Swindells said people are mostly shopping alone, as they were urged to in an effort to stop coronavirus spreading, but there’s ‘still room for improvement on that’.
‘When we implement something for safety or the government asks people to, generally customers follow it pretty quickly and I think that’s why we’ve had so much success flattening the curve,’ he said.
Part of the struggle in meeting demand, other than the sudden surge in demand driven by coronavirus restrictions, is that shoppers are so hard to predict.
Daily Mail Australia pandemic shopping list
Toilet paper, paper towels, tissues
Hand sanitiser, liquid soap
Wipes and other cleaning supplies
Rice, pasta, pasta sauce, mince
No one saw the toilet paper crisis coming and Mr Swindells still says ‘I don’t know what people are doing with 20 million-odd rolls a week’.
‘It’s so difficult to pick what people will buy right now. I usually have a good idea of the week early on, but now I can look at our sales figures at lunchtime and get [my predictions] wrong by the end of the day, that’s how volatile it is,’ he said.
Coles hired 10,000 extra staff in the past three weeks – many being workers laid off as the hospitality industry closed overnight in stage 1 lockdowns – and wants another 4,000.
The company has also created pop-up distribution centres, and sent popular items directly to stores skipping the warehouse stage.
Whole pallets of toilet paper, often dropped directly on to the shop floor, with bigger packs helped mitigate that enduring problem.
Easter, the second biggest time of the year after Christmas, looms as a big test, starting today, especially with strict limits on customers in stores at one time being introduced on Monday.
Long queues formed outside some stores but Mr Swindells said only about five per cent of locations had any lines and they moved quickly.
He said Coles modelling showed 90 per cent of stores won’t have queues over Easter and ‘it would be rare to see one except at the really big traders’.
Long queues formed outside some stores (a store in Firle, Adelaide, pictured) when customer limits came in on Monday but Coles said only about five per cent of locations had any lines and they moved quickly
Coles modelling showed 90 per cent of stores won’t have queues over Easter and ‘it would be rare to see one except at the really big traders’. Lines are likely to be more like this one in Queensland at most shops
Mr Swindells said there were signs demand had peaked and once the grocery chain survived Easter it would have a chance to catch up its supply.
‘I think once we get through Easter it will be fairly straightforward,’ he said. There is also less drama and angst from customers and fewer hoarders.
‘Customers are starting to understand where we are now and it’s a bit calmer than previous weeks.’
Buying restrictions on milk and mince were taken off this week as supply has caught up on those products.
However, home delivery was expected to be limited to elderly and vulnerable customers for some time.
‘We had to turn off delivery because of supply, you can’t have an online offer if it’s not on shelves, it just disappoints people,’ Mr Swindells said.
‘We will double our online delivery capacity by the end of next week and we’re making sure that all of that capacity goes to all the people who really need it.’
Buying restrictions on milk and mince were taken off this week as supply has caught up on those products (fully stocked mince shelves at Coles Surry Hills pictured)
Scenes like this dismayed pensioner looking at what little is available in the toilet paper and paper towel aisle of the Chatswood Aldi is a scene Coles is trying to avoid by prioritising deliveries for the elderly
Mr Swindells said Coles prioritised vulnerable people who can’t shop and re-purposed the online infrastructure for them.
It started with people over 70 and this week linked to the government’s My Aged Care site to find more people in need.
‘That’s why we need to make sure our supermarkets are safe for people to shop because the reality is people still need to come to shops,’ he said.
‘So anyone who can help a neighbour, should.’
Coles also joined other supermarkets in opening its stores from 7am to 8am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for elderly and disabled shoppers to have free reign before the hordes descend.
THE FOOD YOU NEED FOR 14 DAYS IN QUARANTINE
Pasta sauce 2 jars
Two minute noodles 2 pack
Cheese slices 500g 1 pack
Vegemite 1/2 jar
Nutella 1/2 jar
Peanut butter 1/2 jar
Jam 1/2 jar
Frozen fish 1 box
Frozen vegetables 1 kg
Pork, beef and mince meat
Chicken 5 breasts
Canned tuna 7 tins
Eggs 1 dozen
Tinned soup 7 tins
Tinned vegetables 5 tins
Long life milk 3 litres
Frozen bread 2 loaves
Cereal 1 box
Soup 3 packs
Salt and pepper
Pasta sauce 8 jars
Two minute noodles 6 pack
Cheese slices 500g 4 pack
Vegemite 1 jar
Nutella 1 jar
Peanut butter 1 jar
Jam 1 jar
Frozen fish 4 boxes
Frozen vegetables 3kg
Pork, beef and mince meat
Chicken 15 breasts
Canned tuna 14 tins
Eggs 3 dozen
Tinned soup 14 tins
Tinned vegetables 15 tins
Long life milk 12 litres
Frozen bread 8 loaves
Cereal 3 boxes
Soup 12 packs
Salt and pepper
Source: St Vincent De Paul Society