SINGAPORE - Toilet paper rolls have been among the items flying off supermarket shelves amid concerns over the coronavirus, even as stores work steadily to restock products and to reassure shoppers that there is no shortage.
A check of supermarkets across Singapore on Saturday (Feb 8) morning saw larger than usual crowds, although less than on Friday after the coronavirus situation alert was raised a notch from yellow to orange.
Toilet rolls, tissue paper, rice and instant noodles were among the items most commonly seen in trolleys.
A customer at the Isetan Scotts supermarket was overheard on Saturday wryly telling someone over the phone: "There are now only three people in Singapore with all the toilet paper."
The Straits Times visited FairPrice, Cold Storage, Sheng Siong, Isetan, Meidi-Ya and Prime supermarkets in areas like Canberra, Serangoon North, Hougang, Orchard, Holland, Clementi and Pasir Ris on Saturday morning.
Long queues were still seen, never mind the advice that people should avoid crowded places.
Staff were also busily restocking some sections.
At FairPrice in Beo Crescent, many trolleys were packed with toilet rolls.
Some attribute the rush for paper products to unsubstantiated rumours about the supply.
A 55-year-old administrator who wanted to be known as Madam Moey said that people are stocking up on paper products as they are versatile and people are now wiping surfaces more.
"But my family size is quite small, so there is no need to stock up too much and we should not get too stressed over it," she said.
At another FairPrice in Joo Koon, a customer was checking out with 16 bags of rice in his trolley.
Over at the FairPrice in Pasir Ris West Plaza, domestic worker Miu Miu, 30, who queued for 45 minutes to buy the last available carton of eggs, said: "So many items were missing, it's as though the store was giving them away for free."
Cargo driver Ben Aguilar, 33, who was shopping at FairPrice in Hougang 1, said he usually shops on Saturdays as it's his day off. "It has never been this crowded. I bought a lot of processed meat since all the fresh meat has already run out."
He, however, is unfazed by the situation: "It's Singapore, it should be fine."
Insurance agent Jeff Chiew, 29, and his wife, who made a trip to Sheng Siong supermarket in Canberra just as it opened, said they are stocking up on instant noodles, which they do not usually eat.
He said: "Since everyone is stocking up, we're also doing the same but just buying a little more for standby. Nothing too crazy."
The couple also decided to not make their weekly weekend trip to Malaysia in light of code orange and to stay home instead.
But not everyone is buying into the frenzy.
Mother-of-one Latifah Kamil, 31, described the situation as "ridiculous" and said she will not be buying anything she doesn't need.
"I'm a bit worried because my kid is five-months-old and I will take extra safety precautions, but I won't go out and stock up on food. It's not like we're stuck at home; life still goes on as usual," she said.
IT consultant Howard Chong, 39, and his wife, who were out on their weekly grocery run, decided to buy only a few more packets of frozen processed foods for "just in case" situations.
Grocery delivery slots have been snapped up, as more opt to stay home or avoid crowded places.
Checks by The Straits Times showed that delivery slots on RedMart,FairPrice and Amazon's Prime Now were sold out.
A spokesman for Dairy Farm said it has seen a significant increase in demand for delivery orders from Cold Storage and Giant over the last two weeks, and has added additional capacity to cope.
"Hand sanitiser, anti-bacterial wipes and surgical masks have all seen huge spikes in demand. We are working hard to ensure adequate supplies despite significant supply challenges across the entire market in Singapore," a spokesman said.
A Sheng Siong spokesman told The Straits Times on Saturday that the chain has sufficient inventory in Singapore for food supplies and toiletries to meet customers' daily needs.
"Our staff are also working overtime to ensure stocks are replenished in time due to the demand surge," the spokesman said. "There is an increase in sales, but we advise customers to purchase their daily needs only."
A supervisor at Isetan Scotts said on Saturday that the empty shelves were a result of people buying to stock up due to the orange status. All the Thai rice were bought up and will be replenished on Monday.
Meat was also snapped up as people were stocking up to freeze, the supervisor said.
There was much less frenzied buying at wet markets and smaller neighbourhood supermarkets, though.
At the Clementi Avenue 2 market, a housewife who wanted to be known as Madam Rokiah said she came from the nearby FairPrice because vegetables there were sold out.
"Lucky the pasar (market) here still has things I need to cook for my family," she said.
"I think it's not nice to buy too much," she added, "because that would mean that I'm depriving someone else who might need it more".
At a community event on Saturday (Feb 8), President Halimah Yacob urged Singaporeans to remain calm and to not succumb to behaviours that are "not helpful to ourselves or our community".
"The Government is giving very regular, almost daily, updates on what's happening and the current status to be absolutely upfront, but it may create a sense of urgency in people. I hope that people take this information and process it in a rational manner," she said.
President Halimah, who was visiting elder care centre Blossom Seeds in Canberra, also appealed to Singaporeans to not put up photos without context as "it creates a lot of context, panic and fear".
After the raised alert on Friday, photos and posts of long queues at supermarkets and empty shelves were circulated on social media.
In a Facebook post, FairPrice CEO Seah Kian Peng said he had dropped by one of its 24-hour stores at 11.30pm on Friday to assess the situation.
FairPrice employees have all been working non-stop and calmly, he said.
There were long queues but customers were calm. Some said they were buying more because they were worried they might not be able to leave their homes because of the virus.
"These are natural reactions and normal human instincts," he said. "Let us buy what we need and there is no need to hoard. We have supplies but we need time to replenish and do the supply runs."
Additional reporting by Tan Dawn Wei, Tiffany Fumiko Tay, Clara Chong, David Fogarty, Irene Tham, Hariz Baharuddin, Cheryl Tan