As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia passed 200 on Sunday, Joanne Musgrave was busy checking every single order that shipped from her online store Shop Naturally met the newly imposed buying limits. Thinking ahead, she was also sourcing out-of-stock products and making sure they were reserved for her customers with compromised immune systems.

A former web developer, Musgrave suffers from chronic fatigue and chemical sensitivities and is acutely aware of the challenges many Australian are facing as supermarkets and chemists sell out of hygiene products.

“I need to control most aspects of my life to just stay safe. This is why I’m so passionate about people that are in trouble at the moment, who can’t get access to things because I am that person,” Musgrave told Which-50.

Musgrave first noticed the impact of coronavirus in her sales data a few weeks ago — before the toilet paper run happened — when every baby wipe and bottle of hand sanitiser sold out. The family-run business turns over millions in revenue each year, but is still relatively small and doesn’t hold large amounts of stock. Instead, the business relies on suppliers and manufacturers to send them stock quickly, which has never previously been a problem.

In response to the shortage, which has left supermarket shelves bare, Musgrave imposed strict limits on sales of hygiene products such as baby wipes, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser. Much of last week was spent calling around suppliers and manufacturers to find out how much stock is available and bulk buying stock when she could.

Musgrave found one of Shop Naturally’s cleaning product suppliers, Lil’ Bit, was about to launch a hand sanitiser. The product is being produced by a small business in Victoria working around the clock to hand pour each bottle, stick a label on it, pack and ship it. The first batch is leaving the state today.

“I thought if I can only get my hands on 100 of the first batch, I don’t just want 100 regular people buying them. I want to help the people that have compromised immune systems.”

Cancer patients and survivors, cystic fibrosis sufferers, children with Down Syndrome and people “who are in real danger of dying from this virus” have priority over other customers.

Musgrave used Shop Naturally’s newsletter to ask people to get in touch to reserve two bottles of hand sanitiser if they are immune-compromised.

“I received an overwhelming response and the stories that I got from people would make you cry.”

“And even though we can’t supply them for a week or two, it’s just given a lot of people peace of mind that they know that they actually are getting one in it’s coming.”

Kate Morris, CEO of Adore Beauty, told Which-50 that her stock sold out of so quickly the business didn’t have a chance to put in any measures. But the retailer plans to introduce measures to prioritise customers who are immune-compromised “if/when we get resupplied.”

Speed of response

Shop Naturally’s response to the stock shortages caused by coronavirus fears has been entirely manual. And the family-owned business is also small enough to make changes quickly.

“I’m sure I could have put some kind of technology in place to do it but it would have had to spend a few hundred dollars and waited a couple of weeks. So it’s literally a manual process,” Musgrave said.

“Being small and flexible just allowed me to use my own personal experience in my own judgment to help who I saw needed to help most.”

Speaking with Which-50 on Sunday, Musgrave was critical of the supermarket giants, which have also put limits on the sale of multiple products, for failing to prioritise customers who are sick or elderly.

On top of stock shortages, the decision by Woolworths not to supply toilet paper in online orders or click and collect showed the supermarket chain lacked a system to reserve stock for their most needy customers, she said.

This morning Woolworths announced it would give elderly and disabled shoppers access to stores for one hour outside of regular trading hours to from tomorrow until at least Friday. The supermarket has also partnered with Meals on Wheels in New South Wales, to help deliver toilet paper directly to the elderly in the community.

Update 17/03/2020: Coles will introduce a ‘community hour’ on Wednesday to allow the elderly and disadvantaged to shop during this period of unprecedented demand. The supermarket giant will also hire 5,000 new casual workers to serve more customers and stock shelves faster. Coles will also dedicate delivery vans to serve “those in genuine need, especially the most vulnerable and those isolated.”

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