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Food hoarding in Finland moves online

Panic buying of food items has tripled webshop user numbers and created an order delivery backlog in some cities.

Collecting orders for delivery at Kesko's Easton Citymarket outlet. Image: Pekka Tynell / Yle

As the number of novel coronavirus infections In Finland rises, people intent on stocking up on food items are now turning to online services for bulk buying of everyday items.

Finland’s duopoly food retailers S-Group and Kesko -- which jointly command more than 80 percent of the grocery trade -- both said that they had seen a sharp spike in the number of customers using their online stores during the past week.

The peak occurred at roughly the same time that others were scouring traditional brick-and-mortar outlets for necessary items in case they had to isolate themselves because of the disease.

The grocery chains said that on Thursday evening in particular, the surge in traffic caused online services to slow down.

"We have had twice or three times the normal number of visitors," said the retail trade digital services manager Matti Torniainen of the Central Finnish Cooperative Society (SOK), an S-Group subsidiary.

The steep rise in online traffic was also reflected in delays for customers waiting for deliveries to their homes or to pickup points for food orders made online.

"For example, in large cities, the earliest deliveries will be early next week, although they are usually possible the next day," Torniainen added.

Run on toilet paper goes online

The S-Group provides online shopping with deliveries or pick-ups from around 50 outlets in Finland. Delays were reported in the Helsinki region in particular, as well as in Tampere, Turku and Oulu.

Meanwhile S-Group’s main competitor, Kesko Group said that it had observed a similar uptick in online grocery shopping. It had so far been able to deal with the escalation because it provides online services in 250 stores, according to Antti Rajala, sales director responsible for digital services.

He noted that householders appeared to be hoarding the same kinds of products as others who went to traditional grocery stores.

"Toilet tissue, preserves and dry goods were also highlighted to some extent in online orders as well," Rajala added.

More workers needed for collecting and delivering orders

The retailers speculated that if the novel coronavirus pandemic worsens in Finland larger numbers of people may decide to shop online to ensure they can feed their families.

As a result, both said they are bracing for rising demand by increasing the capacity of online services by adding web servers to handle app and web traffic. They said they also plan to hire more staff to collect and deliver food orders.

"We need to hire more people for collecting and for home deliveries at our stores. This is a very personnel-heavy service model, because the orders have to be collected and delivered to customers," Rajala noted.

Keeping an eye on hygiene

The current situation will also affect the way staff working in order processing and delivery work. Stores have already stepped up hygiene guidelines, the spokespersons said.

Only completely healthy personnel are allowed to report for work and payment terminals must be regularly disinfected. Customers can also request that deliveries be left at the door, if they prefer to avoid close contact with delivery personnel.

Both duopolists said that they will also deliver groceries to households that are in quarantine. In such cases, shoppers are being asked to clearly indicate if they are in isolation in the comment field of order forms.