'Accidental stockpilers' drive supermarket shortages

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Empty shelves in a supermarket in London, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Supermarket shortages across the UK have not been driven by hoarders raiding shelves but by ordinary shoppers making more trips to the shops and buying slightly more than usual, according to market research.

Shelves across the UK have been emptied in recent weeks, leading to fears that people were stockpiling goods as the UK ramps up coronavirus restrictions.

The government estimates that an extra £1bn of goods has been bought from supermarkets but not consumed in recent weeks. Officials have appealed to the public to stop panic buying.

Kantar Worldpanel, a market research company, said on Monday that shortages had been caused by what the company dubbed “accidental stockpilers”.

Read more: Positivity and laughter — what it's like to be part of the NHS supermarket shopping hour

“Most of us have seen images circulating online of people bulk buying products like toilet rolls and pasta, but our data gives us a different, if counterintuitive, diagnosis of what’s happening,” said Fraser McKevitt, head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar.

“Temporary shortages are being caused by people adding just a few extra items and shopping more often – behaviour that consumers wouldn’t necessarily think of as stockpiling.”

An elderly lady queues to pay for her shopping at a supermarket in Ashford, Kent, as UK, shoppers are emptying shelves as fears grow over the spread of the coronavirus. (PA)

The average spend per supermarket trip rose by 16% to £22.13 in the week ending 17 March, Kantar said. That same week, Brits made an extra 15m visits to the supermarket, compared to a month earlier. Kantar based its conclusions on the analysis of 100,000 people’s shopping habits in Britain.

Fraser said the uptick in visits and spending could be driven by people having more meals at home.

“People will be eating in more as a result of social distancing and increased working from home,” Fraser said. “Consumers spend more than £4bn each month on food and drink out of the home, a significant proportion of which will now be channelled through the supermarkets.”

Read more: Job security fears among UK workers hit eight-year high

Kantar’s data suggests some items are being stockpiled, however. Toilet roll sales in the week of 8 March were 60% higher than a year earlier, while dry pasta sales were up 55% and baked beans sales rose by 48%.

“We’re seeing customers shop beyond their normal, regular product choice, putting pressure on supplies of items that aren’t usually bought as often,” Fraser said. “Purchasing typically made over a couple of weeks or longer is being concentrated into a few days.”