Sainsbury's to limit customer purchases, close cafes to get through coronavirus

Supermarket group Sainsbury's is to restrict customer purchases to combat panic buying, close its in-store cafes and counters and beef-up online services to get it through the coronavirus crisis, it said on Wednesday.

The UK grocery industry has struggled for over a week to keep shelves stocked in the face of intense panic buying, which got worse on Tuesday despite weekend appeals for calm from supermarket bosses and politicians.

In a letter to customers, Sainsbury's Chief Executive Mike Coupe said that from Wednesday customers would be able to buy a maximum of three of any grocery product and a maximum of two of the most popular products including toilet paper, soap and UHT milk.

"We have enough food coming into the system, but are limiting sales so that it stays on shelves for longer and can be bought by a larger numbers of customers," he said.

Aldi on Monday became the first UK grocer to introduce rationing, limiting customers to buying four items of any one product during each visit.

From Thursday, Sainsbury's will be closing its cafes and its meat, fish and pizza counters in supermarkets.

"This means we can free up warehouse and lorry capacity for products that customers really need. It will also free up time for our store colleagues to focus on keeping the shelves as well stocked as possible," said Coupe.

From Monday, the group will operate an expanded 'click and collect' service, with a significant increase in the number of collection sites across the UK.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday shut down social life in Britain and advised the most vulnerable to isolate for 12 weeks.

Sainsbury's also plans to reserve hours in stores specifically for the elderly and vulnerable and will give customers who are over 70 or have a disability priority access to online delivery slots.

The group said in January that Coupe would step down as CEO on May 31 and be succeeded by Simon Roberts, the group's current retail and operations director.

However, with UK health authorities predicting the peak of the virus is 10 to 14 weeks away there has been speculation he will defer his retirement.

On Tuesday rival Morrisons said it plans to create 3,500 new jobs and expand its home delivery operation to help it deal with coronavirus.