Supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles will roll out dedicated daily shopping hours for the elderly and people with disabilities after panic buying stripped Australian supermarket shelves bare.
Both companies have said they will also close early to allow staff to restock shelves – both being among a range of measures to try to cope with the massive spike from coronavirus-induced frenzied buying.
They will also suspend in-store pick up and some home delivery services, with Woolworths citing the weekend’s “extraordinary levels of demand for groceries”.
“We want to slow the panic down,” Woolworths managing director Claire Peters said on Monday.
“We understand that our customers’ priority is to be prepared, but the vast majority of our food is grown or manufactured in Australia so there is not a concern with supply. What we have is a spike in demand.”
From Tuesday, Woolworths shops will open from 7am-8am exclusively for the elderly and those with a disability. Eligible customers will have to produce a relevant government-issued concession card.
Coles will introduce the same measure – dubbed “community hour” – from Wednesday.
Ms Peters said Woolworths had experienced huge demand last weekend, far exceeding Christmas or any other sales in the past 12 months.
“We continue to encourage all Australians to be mindful of those in our communities who might need extra help at this time,” she said.
“Now – more than ever – we need to be kind to each other, especially to those most vulnerable.”
Among Woolworths’ most radical plans is a decision to shut all of its Australian supermarkets at 8pm on Wednesday, hours earlier than normal for most. Shelves will be restocked and the shops will reopen at 7am on Thursday – with the first hour dedicated to elderly and disabled shoppers.
In Melbourne’s west, IGA Altona said it would also start opening an hour early to allow vulnerable customers time to shop in calm. Other chains are expected to follow suit.
“We see how the elderly are struggling, and the people with disability,” the IGA manager told the ABC on Monday.
Woolworths said suspending its “click and collect” service would allow staff to focus on serving customers in-store. Home delivery will also be cut for the majority of Victorians – with only one catchment area unaffected.
“We’ll continue to service online deliveries in selected metropolitan areas of Melbourne from our West Footscray customer fulfilment centre,” the spokesman said.
The suspension is until further notice, and includes orders already paid for but not picked up. Woolworths said it was processing refunds for affected customers, and delivery services would resume as soon as possible.
“We believe this is a necessary step to allow our team members to prioritise restocking shelves and serving customers in our Victorian stores,” the spokesman said.
Nationwide, Coles will restrict its home deliveries to “those in genuine need, especially the most vulnerable and those isolated”. Click and collect and UberEats services have been suspended.
“Coles is taking all possible steps to improve the level of stock on our shelves for the community,” chief executive Steven Cain said.
“Our team members, suppliers and transport partners have been working as hard as possible delivering more products to stores every day and replenishing shelves of popular products such as toilet paper, long-life pantry staples and healthcare items as quickly as possible.
“We ask for customers to continue to respect and support our team members in store and [online] … particularly if a product is unavailable or if the checkout queues are longer than normal.”
Panic over the coronavirus pandemic has sparked chaotic scenes in supermarkets across the nation, as frenzied shoppers stockpile large amounts of food. In some cases, fights have broken out.
Shelves have been stripped bare and some of Australia’s most vulnerable, including the elderly and those with disabilities, have struggled to get the food they need to survive.
The dedicated shopping hour follows attempts by major supermarkets, including Woolworths, Coles, Aldi and IGA, to stop frenzied customers buying more than they need.
Coles has limited customers to two packets of pasta, flour, rice, paper towels, paper tissues and hand sanitiser per transaction.
At Woolworths, customers can buy two packs of tissues and hand sanitiser, and one pack of rice, paper towels, serviettes and wipes per shop.
On Sunday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said it was “sensible” for people to have a few weeks of food stored as the COVID-19 outbreak spread. But he cautioned against panic buying.
“It is sensible to try to have some of those (staples) on hand, more than you would normally have,” he said.
“But if everybody goes out and buys, not two weeks’ worth of staples but two months’ worth, the shelves will be empty and the only people who suffer then are vulnerable people who might not have got to the shops, or can’t go to four different supermarkets and get the basics that they need.”
Woolworths said it would review its opening arrangements on Friday.