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Sea of shoppers empties shelves as virus panic takes hold

Coles implemented further shopping restrictions on Saturday morning, limiting the purchase of pasta, flour, rice, hand towels, tissues and hand sanitisers to two items per customer.

Shopping chaos in Coles Showgrounds, Melbourne on Saturday.

Shopping chaos in Coles Showgrounds, Melbourne on Saturday.

The supermarket giant also temporarily suspended its change-of-mind policy to “discourage over-purchasing”, according to a statement posted online. Woolworths announced on Wednesday that it was trying to stop panic buying and hoarding by refusing returns on high-demand products such as toilet paper and rice.

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By 6.50am on Saturday, people had formed long lines outside Sunshine Marketplace in Melbourne’s north-west hoping to be greeted by refreshed shelves.

Those looking for an alternative to going in-store were left disappointed after the Woolworths website crashed. A notice on Woolworths’ website at midday stated: “It seems our site is a bit overwhelmed at the moment. We apologise for the hold up.”

Customer John Lovelock said his usual in-and-out shop at Coles Showgrounds had ballooned, and he had spent far longer waiting in line to pay than usual. “My regular Saturday Coles trip takes about 20 minutes, I probably waited 25 minutes just for the checkout,” he said.

Mr Lovelock’s advice? Unless you are desperate, don’t bother.

“Pretty much all the staples of a regular diet are short,” he said. “Meat, lamb, pasta and canned vegetables, as well as toilet paper, paper towels and soap/hand sanitisers are bare.

He put the rush down to “just a bit of an overreaction; people are panic buying and thus causing others to.”

Citi Australia estimates that stockpiled products, such as toilet paper and canned food, account for around 4 to 5 per cent of a standard supermarket basket. But it estimates that this week’s trading in those products was the equivalent of one to two months’ worth of regular sales.

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Coles thanked shoppers for their understanding and said staff were “working tirelessly to do the best job possible under the circumstances”.

“Please continue to respect and support our team members, particularly if a product isn’t available or the checkout queues are longer than normal,” the company stated.

Cases of coronavirus hit 200 in Australia on Saturday after three more cases were announced in South Australia.

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