Ask the Expert: Why we won’t face wartime-style rationing

We've seen panic buying in our supermarkets and businesses struggling on our high streets - shopping in Australia has changed dramatically in a matter of weeks.

As consumers, it's natural to want to know what stores are doing to maintain supplies and how businesses are adapting to meet our needs in coming months.

On the flip side, what can shoppers do to help our favourite retailers get through the COVID-19 crisis and ensure their staff are safe?

Jos de Bruin, CEO of Master Grocers Australia, represents businesses on the frontline, the independent retailers, including names like IGA, Foodworks and Foodland, as well as timber and hardware merchants and other key businesses.

Today he fielded News Corp readers' questions about the future of retail, store closures, food supply and safety when shopping - and of course the availability of toilet roll.

The good news - rationing is not going to happen. The bad - panic buying does push up prices.

Here's more of what he had to say.

Q. They claim there is no shortage of toilet paper, but we have yet to see the shelves not empty. If there is really as much as claimed, then why is this still the case?

A. Independent supermarket operators have never seen or experienced anything like what we have seen and you have experienced in recent weeks in regard to the demand for toilet paper.

Our suppliers are very astute and forecast demand very accurately. What they didn't forecast was that we would sell 12 months of toilet paper in three weeks. Completely unnecessary - we will see toilet paper coming back to our shelves in constant supply soon as the suppliers have been very agile to up production. Now it's up to our very stressed supply chain to come back to normality so that stocks can arrive in stores. We are hoping all our customers are understanding of this and remain patient.

Q. How long should it be until we can feel confident in walking into a shop and getting toilet paper?

A. Most stores are receiving their grocery deliveries with toilet paper now albeit in smaller quantities than they ordered. We advise our customers, if they can, to shop their local supermarket on a more frequent basis in the short to medium term for their immediate needs such as toilet paper because there are multiple deliveries of groceries that occur during the day.

Q. Will ration card with stamps (or maybe now electronically) make a comeback?

A. We don't see such a drastic measure as our forefathers witnessed during the Second World War when commodities such as butter, sugar, flour and dairies were scarce. We are the lucky country and have an abundance of fresh food and groceries available to us - we just need to buy what we need and supply will mostly be there for us.

Q. We'd be naive to think that the consumer will not be paying more across the board for all groceries and products in the near future. What is a realistic approximate percentage rise we can expect? Fruit and vegetables being the main one I'm interested in. Thanks

A. Prices of all goods we purchase are generally a consequence of supply and demand - this is particularly so with fresh fruit and veg. The enormous spike in demand we have experienced in the past 4 - 5 weeks has caused fresh food shortages resulting in price hikes. The independent supermarket owners do not make any additional margins or increase prices as they want to - they simply reflect back into price what they have paid for the product at the markets and from their suppliers. We believe fresh food prices will come down soon once the panic buying has ceased and we can supply ALL customers with their daily and weekly needs.

Q. I still find it odd that given all there changes we are making, people are still sorting through fruit and veg with their hands at the supermarket, no gloves, touching EFTPOS machines, etc. It slaps in the face a little bit of all we are now required to do.

A. Hygiene practices must be exercised by all our shoppers (and our staff) out of respect for each other. Independent supermarket operators have many signs and indicators in place requesting customers to not handle the fresh fruit and veges and unless they are intending to purchase those items. Cleanliness is a priority so all eftpos machines, fridge door handle, trolleys and anything that customers may come in contact with are being regularly sanitised and washed down.

Q. With many of the bricks & mortar stores being shuttered, do you envisage a quantum shift to online shopping that will forever change the retail landsc ape in Australia?

A. The way consumers shop for food and other goods in general will have changed by the time we get to the other side. Technology has been our friend in these difficult times and the rapid development of current online facilities has been impressive to accommodate consumers' needs. I believe that consumers will continue to shop in their local independent supermarket owing to the friendly and supportive service and the range of locally produced products they carry. At this point independent supermarkets have been the hubs of their communities and have endeared themselves to their local communities and this will continue on for a very long time.

Q. Do you see a positive from the amount of people discovering new cooking skills at the mo ment? From the perspective of more fresh produce and basic staples being used in home cooking and with eating in with the family being rediscovered as a positive change rather than continuous reliance on fast foods.

A. With the current demand on many common food items and lack of supply consumers have shown they can be flexible too. They are going back to recipe books and are beginning to cook meals with the foods that are available on our supermarket shelves and in the fresh departments. Our advice at this point is to say that there is plenty of food available, if what you want is not there then try to be flexible as you will find many alternatives in store right now.

Q. I fear that a number of businesses who may have been struggling before the outbreak may very well use the government assistance and keep their doors closed after the dust settles. The businesses that reopen may consider their cost bases and not rehire some of their team. Will business be asked to pay a form of redundancy to these people or will they just be required to ride off into the sunset? My thoughts are a number of stores will simply not reopen.

A. It's difficult to say what retailers and business owners will do - staff are their greatest asset. Small business owners want to retain their staff and want to make sure they are in place for when the current situation is behind us. This is an unprecedented time and I believe most retailers, if not all, will be wanting to support their staff in the best way financially possible.

Q. Has there been any discussion on use of facemasks by staff within supermarkets etc, in particular those who may need to stand in one place for a long period of time around the same surfaces etc?

A. There have been many safe guards discussed to assist our staff at the front line, particularly the front ends. Washing and sanitising hands after every customer transaction is strongly encouraged and social distancing as much as possible is being enacted. Some of our members are putting up "sneeze screens" in their stores as we speak to further protect customers and staff alike.

Originally published as Ask the Expert: Why we won't face wartime-style rationing

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