#CoronavirusSA: Fear and loathing in SA – 20 March 2020

by Louise Burgers. Retailing Africa launches weekly tracking to curate and update our readers on the latest developments in South Africa and Africa around COVID-19 and its impact on the brand and retail value chain.

Retailing Africa has launched weekly tracking to curate and update our readers on the latest developments in South Africa and Africa around the coronavirus COVID-19 and its impact on the brand and retail value chain across the continent.

The jokes are wearing a bit thin as panic buying, or should we say, privilege buying, set in on Monday following South Africa’s implementation of COVID-19 travel and gathering restrictions and shelves were emptied of toilet paper and other essentials; and the negative economic effect hit small businesses and eventing and tourism industries overnight.

A shout out to Pick n Pay which responded to calls this week for a special shopping hour for the elderly, who are the most vulnerable to this devastating COVID-19 virus; and Spar which offered to deliver to old age homes in at least one area. There was a backlash against the privileged higher LSM shoppers who stripped Woolies bare in a frenzy after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech on Sunday night; and retailers were chided on social media for not setting limits for customers on how much product each could carry away. It’s a whole new world out there, we have never faced down anything like this. Some people are obviously still in denial and others are in full self-isolation mode.

How brands respond now is key and we will be tracking retailer and brand responses on a daily and weekly basis from hereon in. Advertising agency bemouth, Ogilvy, launched a COVID-19 communicators guide this week which it made public to aid marketers and communicators. Ogilvy regional leader: PR and Influence Asia, Scott Kronick, said: “It’s a challenging time for broader society, which means it can be a challenging time for marketers and communicators. In issues and crisis management, there’s a saying that goes, ‘You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control what you do about it.’ As marketers and communicators, what we can control is how we communicate both internally and externally in a time of crisis.” Here’s a link to the full insights.

FRIDAY, March 20, 2020
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash.

11 tips for retailers to deal with coronavirus fears

Rita Mitchell, a business counsellor at the University of Southern Mississippi Small Business Development Center (SBDC) which focuses on startups, provided a list of 11 tips for retailers to reassure customers during this testing time. They were published on Statupnation. It is aimed at the US market, but these are the top tips which are applicable to local retailers too:

  1. Have VISIBLE and TOTAL hygiene discipline. Mitchell suggests placing anti-bacterial pumps throughout your store. Also, post photos online and on your website of “deep cleaning” activities that can show customers your commitment to keeping them healthy while shopping.
  2. She also recommends posting a kind and intimate email, Facebook post, Instagram post, and in-store posted statement about your commitment to the care and services your business will provide during this emergency.
  3. To drum up business from people who are staying away from shopping in stores, she recommends making an open offer of encouragement to deliver or ship a client’s order and then, include a fun surprise. (P.S. Your client will want delivery and shipping to be at no charge).
  4. She says your goal on social media shouldn’t just be clicks, but also engagement through things like flash contests, polling followers on their favourite products, or offering giveaways to the first responder of a post.
  5. Mitchell says her favourite tip is to simply ask how your clients need you to help them now. One retailer reported that a client just wanted a bright new top to wear and didn’t want to make a trip to the store. The store sent her options, she chose the one she liked, and both client and store are happy.

Toilet paper tracker

How long do you and your toilet paper have before you run out and civilisation ends as you know it? Someone has developed a toilet paper tracker. Of course they have. You can enter how many rolls of toilet paper you have, along with how many times a day you use the loo and it will calculate how many days you have left until your personal apocalypse. Try it out:

THURSDAY, March 19, 2020
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels.

Price profiteering stopped

Government announced price restrictions on a list of essential products to prevent price gouging and profit made from a panicked populace, in terms of the Disaster Management Act signed into law on Thursday. Those who do not comply will face fines of R1 million or 10% of a firm’s turnover and imprisonment for up to 12 months. The list of products includes:

  • toilet paper
  • hand sanitiser
  • facial masks
  • disinfectants and cleaners
  • surgical gloves
  • surgical masks
  • disinfectant wipes
  • antiseptic liquids
  • all-purpose cleaners
  • baby formula
  • disposable nappies
  • bleach
  • cooking oils
  • wheat flour
  • rice
  • maize meal
  • pasta
  • sugar
  • long-life milk
  • canned and frozen vegetables
  • canned, frozen and fresh meat, chicken or fish
  • bottled water

Edgars’ proactive stance

Mike Elliott, Edgars chief executive, put out a statement addressing safety measures for customers and staff: “When President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on 15 March 2020, we welcomed the strength and resolution of his stance and were ready to roll out our protocols to mitigate the ‘community transmission’ risk. Some of the measures already put in place include our in-store sanitiser protocol for all points-of-sale and high touch areas. Service centres, fitting rooms, baskets, receiving bays, and stockrooms are being sanitised every hour, and staff members are regularly using hand sanitizer in between serving customers. There are sanitisation stations for customers as well as easy reminders in place to encourage social distancing. Red tape on the floors mark out one meter distances for till point queues, ‘Pause Area’ couches have been replaced with chairs set one meter apart, and the payment process has been adapted so that customers don’t have to hand any cards over.

“Our couriers who deliver online orders are using hand sanitiser before and after every delivery, and have adopted a hands-free point of delivery service so that customers don’t need to physically sign for their orders. And the orders themselves are packed at sanitised packing stations by staff wearing protective gear. Beyond this newly sharpened focus on strict hygiene, we have urged our staff to take particular care in building their own immune systems by eating well, getting sufficient sleep, exercising, and reducing stress. We have also urged them to avoid contact with people who display symptoms of fever, dry cough, and tiredness, and to act quickly if they feel unwell.

“Despite the general tension and uncertainty during this pandemic, I believe that we all have it within ourselves to act responsibly, to respond with the appropriate level of calm, and to unite our every effort in true South African spirit until we flatten this curve.”

Things they left behind

After the panic buying was over and all the toilet paper was gone; and the shoppers were safely isolated, this was all that was left on retail shelves across the globe in the Year 2020 – as curated by Bored Panda:

  • Hawaiian pizza with pineapple. That’s a definitive no then to the debate about pineapple on pizza. Vegan pizza and spinach pasta also got left behind in the apocalypse.
  • Gluten-free white bread; or gluten-free battered Halibut.
  • Broccoli and cauliflower pizza – if the world feels like it’s ending, why not have real carbs?
  • Kraft Mac and Cheese with cauliflower pasta.
  • Chocolate hummus – no debate there.
  • Unsalted potato chips.
  • Frozen peas; frozen onions and peppers.
  • Baby Shark cereal – Do do do NOT do it!
  • Corona Beer – you have to feel sorry for this brand.
WEDNESDAY, March 18, 2020

After the initial panic, South Africans started to show their ubuntu, with several positive responses being featured in the mainstream media, from former airport shuttle drivers offering to shop for the elderly and vulnerable; to coronavirus support groups being set up on Facebook and WhatsApp for communities to help each other across South Africa, and some brands tentatively tested the marketing waters. But Government announced even more restrictions on movement, with provincial authorities closing public facilities; and restaurants, pubs and shebeens restricted from selling alcohol after hours.

Free delivery to pensioners

GoodThingsGuy reported that one Spar in Joburg offered to deliver groceries to all nearby old age homes and pensioners, free of charge. Eagle Canyon Spar said: “At Eagle Canyon Super SPAR we understand the challenges our pensioners face and in light of this, we offer FREE delivery to all our retirement villages and pensioners.”

Immune boosting food

Food Lover’s Market were also on the ball with displays of cupboard staples upfront for panicked customers, like tuna, 2-minute noodles and rice; as well as tweeting out immune boosting meal ideas.

In a statement, Brian Coppin, CEO, Food Lover’s Market Group, said: “We, at FLM group, are fully aware of the COVID-19 virus and the potentially devastating effect it can have on our country. In line with the President’s address, we give our full commitment to do everything in our power to combat the spread of the virus – while at the same time supplying top-quality safe products to all our customers, from all of our stores.

“We will continue to work closely with our health and safety advisors, the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, the Provincial and National Departments of Health. We are also monitoring advice from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NCID) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). We will dedicate all the resources we have available to ensure the safety of all our colleagues and all of our customers. This is our top priority.”

Nandos is not chicken

We’ve been waiting for the Nandos marketing team to see how they will handle the current crisis. (No word from KFC yet):

Nando’s ad, March 2020
TUESDAY, March 17, 2020

There was a frenzy as events cancellations continued to pour in as Government banned gatherings larger than 100 people.


  • Quicket MD James Tagg sent an email detailing procedure for the numerous events cancelled or postponed overnight this week: “We are facing an unprecedented challenge in the events industry and are asking for your patience and understanding. Thousands of event organisers, promoters, and other professionals throughout the industry whose livelihood depends on events are facing a dramatic loss of income. On a personal note, in my lifetime, I have never seen so many affected in such a short space of time. If you are able to support the event organisers and their suppliers who rely on you, I ask that you do so with grace and an even-tempered mind. We need more than ever to pull together as a society, possibly at the expense of some of our own personal liberties, and a little kindness and patience will go a long way in helping everyone to weather this challenge.”
  • Heavy Chef was one of the first events to go online and will be live streaming its Inspiration Session to ticket holders. The speakers, renowned futurists Dion Chang, Musa Kalenga and Bronwyn Williams will be live streamed from Workshop 17 in Cape Town. They will look at global trends, Covid-19 and the impact it is having on the worldwide economy, on March 31.
  • Vegan Show: The Vegan & Plant Powered Show (VPPS) – South Africa’s first dedicated vegan and plant-based exhibition presented by Live Events – has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will now take place on September 5 and 6 this year. It was originally scheduled to take place at the end of May. The venue remains the same – the CTICC in Cape Town.

Elder hour

Pick n Pay was quick off the mark after criticism on social media of the lack of control around panic buying by customers in the suburbs and responded positively to suggestions that the most vulnerable group, the elderly, be accommodated. The retailer launched a special pensioners shopping hour every Wednesday for shoppers over 65. It will open all its supermarkets and hypermarkets an hour earlier for the elderly to pick up groceries and essentials, thereby ensuring this most vulnerable age group limits their risk in coming into contact with infected persons.

MONDAY, March 16, 2020
Pick n Pay restocking shelves of baked beans on Monday, March 16, 2020.

The severity of the measures to “flatten the curve” of the infection rate of COVID-19, a coronavirus strain, announced by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night, March 15, 2020, were far more severe than most people anticipated. They were lauded as courageous and necessary, but no one is under any illusion that closing borders, restricting travel and large gatherings, closing schools and universities, and encouraging people to work from home where they can and self-isolate, will destroy economies as it runs riot across the world’s markets.

The focus right now has to be on curbing panic and reassuring a frightened population – and this is where it is so important for retailers and brands to get their messaging right. Monday was not retail’s finest hour, as, caught unawares by the surge in panic buying after the President’s speech, it took a couple of days for any kind of positive response to filter down. No staff were wearing masks or gloves and there were some sanitiser spray bottles at the entrances to stores. There was certainly little “social distance” being practised.

*Curated and edited by Retailing Africa Publisher & Editor, Louise Burgers. Keep the industry updated and send your announcements and news to:


Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.


– Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter every Monday and Thursday. Subscribe here.