Three-quarters of the population have experienced shortages of products when shopping in recent weeks, with vulnerable consumers among those struggling to get hold of essentials, new research from Which? has found.
In a survey of more than 2,000 members of the public on the impact of the coronavirus outbreak carried out between 20th-24th March, three-quarters (76%) reported experiencing shortages of products in supermarkets, shops or online.
A third (34%) said they could not find hand sanitisers while around a quarter could not find toilet rolls (27%) and rice and pasta (25%).
The coronavirus outbreak has also impacted shopping habits, with around a third (32%) saying they have shopped at independent and convenience stores more than usual.
While supermarkets have maintained there is plenty of food available to feed the nation, many stores have struggled to keep their shelves stocked around the clock to meet the sudden increase in demand, while online shopping delivery slots are booked up weeks in advance.
Major retailers have been seeking to address these issues by hiring thousands of extra staff, limiting purchases of some items and prioritising NHS workers and vulnerable customers at certain times, while the government has relaxed competition laws to allow supermarkets to
work together on maintaining supplies of essential goods.
The government has also made plans to deliver weekly food parcels to more than a million people who have been identified as medically vulnerable.
Worryingly, in another survey of Which? members carried out in the same time period, thousands said they had experienced food shortages, including reports from some vulnerable customers who said they had struggled to get the products they needed.
One Which? member said they were struggling to get fresh food such as bread, vegetables and milk, particularly as they had been advised to stay indoors due to their age and had been unable to secure an online delivery slot.
Another member from rural Scotland said their local supermarkets, which are nine miles away, were filled with empty shelves. As these stores were relatively small, they had not yet introduced special opening times for older or vulnerable customers but were closing earlier.
Which? found that product shortages were experienced relatively evenly across all regions of the country, suggesting the issue was widespread.
The measures introduced by the supermarkets and the government appear to be having some impact and a number of supermarkets have recently been able to relax some of the restrictions that they put in place. The situation around the country continues to change regularly.
However, more must still be done to ensure effective coordination and clear communication across the country so that people are clear on the best way to access the food they need. This includes people the government has identified as vulnerable as part of its coronavirus guidance, as well as those who may be vulnerable because of their wider circumstances.
The government must also work with the food industry to develop an effective contingency plan to avoid any future disruption to supply chains, as well as addressing these issues of availability and distribution.
Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy at Which?, said:
“Millions of people have been experiencing product shortages in supermarkets, with all parts of the country affected. While many can adapt their shopping habits, it is particularly concerning that we are hearing from vulnerable consumers who are struggling to get hold of essentials.
“Supermarkets must continue to work with the government to explore innovative solutions that ensure people have access to essential food supplies in the challenging weeks and months ahead.
“With coronavirus restrictions expected to last months, the government must ensure that there is more effective coordination of food supplies and clearer communication. All consumers, but particularly people who are vulnerable, need to have a much clearer route to access the right help and food supplies for their needs.”
Notes to editor
Which? is a non-profit organisation working to make life simpler, fairer and safer for consumers. During the coronavirus crisis, Which? is making a range of news, advice and guides available for free for anyone who needs it at https://www.which.co.uk/news/
The latest information on supermarkets, including product restrictions and special opening times, at https://www.which.co.uk/
Which? surveyed 2,003 adults in the UK between Friday 20th and Tuesday 24th of March. Fieldwork was carried out online by Opinium and data has been weighted to be representative of the UK population aged 18+.
Which? also surveyed 15,868 members of its online panel between Friday 20th and Tuesday 24th of March 2020.