UK supermarkets impose tight new rules to prevent hoarding

Retailers face struggle to keep shelves stocked during coronavirus crisis

The UK’s supermarket chains have announced tight new restrictions on purchases and called for regulations to be relaxed as they battle to keep food on the shelves while shoppers stockpile groceries.

Asda and Tesco are closing service counters – such as delicatessens and fish counters – and joining Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Lidl and the Co-op in imposing limits on the amount that can be purchased.

The online grocer Ocado shut down its entire website and app until Saturday as bosses work on ways to make more delivery slots available. The grocer had already limited orders to existing customers.

David Potts, the chief executive of Morrisons, called on the government to ditch some of the regulations that supermarkets have to abide by, such as relaxing weight restrictions on delivery vans so that each vehicle can carry more food. He also wants competition rules lifted to enable grocers to work together to meet demand. Potts said: “There will be legislation that works perfectly in peacetime and not so well in wartime.”

Retailers and cafes are also introducing measures to help protect their staff and customers from the spread of the virus. Tesco is introducing social distancing lines a metre apart at its checkouts while Morrisons is setting up protective screens for sales assistants at every till point.

The new restrictions in place include:

  • Tesco: three items per customer on all products from Thursday. It is closing all meat, fish, deli and salad counters. It is also asking able shoppers to opt for click and collect or in-store shopping to free up home delivery slots for vulnerable and elderly people.

  • Asda: three items on all food, toiletries and cleaning products from Wednesday. Closure of cafes and pizza counters.

  • Lidl: limits of four items per customer on a range of products including tinned foods, pasta and toilet paper.

  • Co-op: restricting purchases to two per customer on some products, including hand sanitiser, soap, tinned goods, pasta, rice, long-life milk, sugar, baby food and nappies.

  • Aldi: four-items-per-shopper limit on all products since the weekend.

In a letter to customers, Dave Lewis, the chief executive of Tesco, said: “We now have to accept it is not business as usual. In the last two weeks we have seen significant and prolonged increases in demand across all of our stores.” He said the retailer had to plan on the current situation being “the new normal”.

In a blogpost to customers, Asdasaid it was closing its cafes and pizza counters and introducing limits because of “heightened demand for products both in stores and online”.

The retailer said: “We have plenty of products to go around but we have a responsibility to do the right thing for our communities to help our customers look after their loved ones in a time of need.”

The changes come as shortages over the weekend extended beyond toilet roll, canned food and pasta to include fresh meat, flour, frozen vegetables, eggs, sugar and teabags.

The government’s advice to avoid restaurants and bars has also added to demand in supermarkets, as families prepare more meals at home rather than eat out.

Morrisons sales have soared by an estimated 15% in the last fortnight.

The company said there had been “considerable stocking up” as shoppers prepare for more time at home.

Morrisons also said it had decided to hold off paying a special dividend to shareholders that analysts had expected to be worth about £100m. It will keep the cash in hand to prepare for any difficulties associated with the virus.

“We are currently facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty dealing with Covid-19,” Potts and the company’s chairman, Andy Higginson, said in a joint statement.

Morrisons said it was aiming to tackle increased demand by slimming down its ranges and ramping up food production. The company said it had been able to pack 65% more loaves of bread this week, for example, by cutting the types of bread on offer from 17 to seven.

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Sarah Butler and Rebecca Smithers

The GuardianTramp

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