Billionaire retailer Gerry Harvey is under fire for lauding the coronavirus pandemic as a sales opportunity, while dismissing concerns about the spread of the lethal infection.
“Why are we so scared about getting this virus?” Mr Harvey told the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes on Sunday.
“There’s pretty much nothing to get scared of. It’s not the Spanish flu that killed 15 million people just after the First World War … I’m 80, I should be really scared. Guess what? I’m not really scared.”
Mr Harvey also said the virus had brought a boost to his chain of electronics and home appliance shops.
“You know, this is an opportunity,” he said.
“Our sales are up in Harvey Norman in Australia by 9 per cent on last year. Our sales in freezers are up 300 per cent. And what about air purifiers? Up 100 per cent.”
The comments drew scathing criticism on social media, along with widespread calls for a boycott of Harvey Norman stores.
Mr Harvey appeared in a special episode of the Nine Network show, along with health experts, business leaders and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. It aired within hours of Mr Morrison announcing non-essential services – including pubs, restaurants and churches – would close across Australia from midday on Monday.
It also followed weeks of panic buying in supermarkets across the country as Australians prepared for tougher restrictions on movement to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
As the frenzied shopping showed no signs of slowing, and amid outbreaks of violence in the aisles, supermarkets have restricted purchases of staples such as pasta, canned tomatoes, rice, milk and toilet paper.
Mr Harvey, who reportedly has a net worth of $1.9 billion and is at No.40 on the Australian Financial Review‘s rich list, said earlier in March he had lost more than $1 million as Australian shares plunged.
He told the Nine newspapers that he had spent $15 million on various stocks – including Woodside, BHP, Rio Tinto, the big four banks, Computershare and his own Harvey Norman – as they plunged to 12-month lows on fears for the fallout from the virus pandemic.
The shares have since fallen further. Mr Harvey said he had likely lost $1.5 million on the purchases – but he remained unfazed.
“In 10 years I’ll probably still have most of them,” he said. “I just look at the long term and go ‘oh well’. They’ll go in the drawer with all the others I’ve gotten.”