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People catch 'hoarding bug' on lockdown fears over coronavirus outbreak

Even online grocery companies have seen a spike in orders

BS Reporters  |  New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai 

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Shoppers wait in line at cash registers at a supermarket in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

“It is a good idea to buy for a month. No one knows what will happen tomorrow — whether grocery will be available at all or at what prices they will be sold,” says Sumit Samaddar, a resident of South Kolkata.

Samaddar, who works for a cement firm, is one from the millions of households who thronged neighborhood kiranas and retail chains in the past few days to stock essential food items over fears that a lockdown might extend beyond 15 days if the COVID-19 crisis escalates. Even online grocery companies have seen a spike in orders.

These stores have reduced their restocking duration to meet the surge in demand — largely comprising of wheat flour, rice, sugar, edible oils, pulses, and vegetables like onion and potatoes. Some are advising buyers to revisit as stocks run out. “Large stores have closed down. What if small shops close, too? We are buying essentials to be prepared in case there is a shutdown,” an elderly customer at one of the shops in Chennai said.

In Kolkata, where a large part of the population consumes non-vegetarian food, people are frantically buying canned food. Even in such times, demand for poultry products has hit a low due to false fears over COVID-19 spreading through their consumption.

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Shambhu Nath Das, owner of a large-format kirana store in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, is planning to bring his nephew from the village to manage the frenzy. He says sales have gone up 25 per cent in the past few days and doorstep delivery has peaked.

In Ahmedabad’s retail-cum-wholesale grain market, merchant Panachand Zaverdas & Sons (PZ) has seen demand shoot up by more than 100 per cent since last Friday. “While larger Gujarati families are known to store grains for almost the entire year, it is now the non-Gujarati nuclear families who are buying in panic. This has led to our daily outflow shoot up from 100 quintals to over 200 quintals,” says a manager at PZ. “Panic buying has been seen more among the affluent. The lower middle-class seems to be oblivious to the outbreak,” says Premal Tankarawala of Tankarawala & Sons, another large grocery shop in Ahmedabad.

In Chennai, A M Vikramaraja, leader of Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangankalin Peramaippu, a federation of traders' organisations, says people are buying double of what they usually do, especially rice, wheat, and pulses.

Sensing the panic, Confederation of Al India Traders (CAIT) has appealed to customers not to pay heed to rumors that say traders’ associations have decided to down their shutters. “Trade association leaders will consider all pros and cons of any shutdown, as the shops of traders are first points of contact for more than 1.3 billion people for meeting their requirements,” said Praveen Khandelwal, secretary general of CAIT.

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A woman wears a mask, looks at a notice on 'no mask and no hand rub', at the entrance gate of a medical store in Kolkata. PTI

The heartening fact, according to traders, is that India has sufficient quantities of wheat, rice, and pulses to meet the heightening demand. While the government’s grain stocks are filled to the brim, the new rabi harvest of pulses and onion and potatoes is due to reach the markets in the next few weeks.

Shelves of Nagrik Society Stores, a wholesaler in the suburb of Santacruz east, Mumbai, are virtually empty. “There’s no soap, dal, or flour,” says the proprietor Vishwas Patil. “I normally have around two to three weeks’ inventory. But in the past one week, people have been buying heavily.” The picture is no different at Al-Noor Stores at Bandra. The proprietor, Ahmed Khan, has been calling up his distributor frantically as he has run out of inventory.

Patil and Khan are top wholesalers in the Santacruz and Bandra areas. Typically, wholesalers in an area offer sharper discounts than kiranawalas, ensuring perpetual footfalls. Trade estimates put the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) market in Mumbai, Thane, and Vashi at Rs 20,000 crore, given the density of people.

Mihir Mehta, managing director, VS Omnitrade India, a Mumbai-based distributor, says there is a huge demand-supply gap but the situation should ease in a few weeks. “I think by the first week of April, once people come out of the semi-lockdown in Mumbai and other parts, the situation should be better. For now, I am not undertaking any deliveries,” he says.

In Kolkata, FMCGs are drawing up contingency plans to make sure distribution remains unaffected at a time when there is a shortage of field sales staff due to the fear of the infection spreading. “Field sales employees are not visiting stores often, leading to a shortage in food items and other commodities such as soap, phenol, and dental care items, among others. People have also started hoarding,” Goutam Ray, a grocery shop owner in the southern part of the city, said.

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Singapore: Shoppers wearing face masks with a cart full of food supplies wait in line to pay at a supermarket counter in Singapore

In Hyderabad, stocking started last Saturday and has become worse. Empty shelves and forced closure of departmental stores has become a common sight. "Every night since Saturday, we received four big trucks to replenish the store unlike intermittent supplies being handled by smaller trucks in the past. People are buying in bulk as they are scared of what is coming,” Venugopal, a man who guards the Ratnadeep Super Market in Himayatnagar, said.

Traders said unusual stocking of rice was happening across Hyderabad, though the stores of DMart, MORE, Ratnadeep, Spencer’s, and Star, visited by our reporter, had good stock of groceries, including rice, and were being sold at routine prices. “Demand for milk products is high, too,” an assistant at Spencer’s hypermarket said.

The scene is not different in the capital region’s mom-and-pop stores and retail chains. Wednesday looked like a Sunday with long queues at Dwarka’s Modern Bazaar — people here were ready to stock for as long as three months. At a MORE outlet in Gurugram, pulses and other cereals were out of stock, so were tissue papers.

“There is sudden surge in demand for onions and potatoes, but supplies are adequate. Things might smoothen in the coming days when arrivals will be managed to meet the demand,” said Rajendra Sharma, president of Onion Merchant Association of Azadpur mandi, said. “Demand for potatoes and onions needs to be adjusted as several bulk buyers have decided to temporarily shut down in the city.”

(Sanjeeb Mukherjee, Arnab Dutta, Dilasha Seth, Viveat Susan Pinto, Avishek Rakshit, Dasarath B Reddy, Vinay Umarji, and Gireesh Babu contributed to the story)

First Published: Wed, March 18 2020. 21:59 IST
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