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Wednesday, Apr 08, 2020

Hong Kong’s supply of toilet paper to improve this week, importer says

Temporary shortage occurred amid buying frenzy as mainland Chinese workers resumed work on February 10 instead of February 3 after Spring Festival. Consumer Council says challenge is distribution of toilet rolls as some districts have enough stocks while others stare at empty shelves

Hong Kong’s toilet paper supply is expected to improve this week, according to a major importer who revealed on Wednesday that he had tripled his usual stock to meet the escalated demands amid the coronavirus outbreak.

But the consumer watchdog said that the challenge remained the distribution of the rolls across the city, while calling for quick and accurate adjustments in its allocation to reduce panic among shoppers and restore a stable market.

Philip Ho, an importer and chairman of the Hong Kong Suppliers Association, said his company had tripled the product’s supply in February, shipping several containers every day, each carrying 50,000 to 72,000 rolls of toilet paper to the city.

Ho believed the availability would improve later this week.

The importer said his company had been coordinating with factories to ramp up supply and hiring additional drivers to speed up deliveries to stores.

“We certainly do not want to see the empty shelves when there is a continuous supply,” he said.

Supermarket chain ParknShop said it had doubled the quantity of toilet paper delivered to its stores to meet the surge in demand, while Wellcome said it would do its utmost to speed up replenishment.

Willy Lin Sun-mo, chairman of the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council, said: “Many transport workers have not taken a day off since the Lunar New Year.”

Lin also said that border closures did not affect the imports as he observed cross-border traffic was approaching one of its historic highs, with more than 4,000 trucks travelling between the city and mainland China every day to help maintain a stable supply chain.

“Everyone wants to work for the betterment of Hong Kong,” Lin said. “I personally think [the panic buying will stop] in a matter of days.”

Toilet rolls became a sought after item two weeks ago when anxious Hongkongers snapped up entire shelves of the product, along with boxed and pocket tissues, amid fears that production in mainland China would stop because of the public health crisis.

Such fears, fed by online rumours, mounted when the government announced on February 5 that it would impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering from the mainland, sparking concerns that supplies would also be held up.

In response, the government repeatedly assured the public that its containment strategy would not affect imports while major supermarkets introduced quotas to allow more customers buy the product.

But toilet paper remained a coveted item. On Monday morning, an armed gang robbed a delivery man of 600 rolls at knifepoint outside a Wellcome store in Mong Kok. Three men have since been arrested and the stolen rolls, worth HK$1,640, recovered from a guest house.

According to the Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong imported 89.6 million kilograms of toilet rolls last year, down from 90.4 million kilograms in 2018.

Ho said suppliers typically prepared a buffer stock of about a month’s supply before mainland factories closed for the Spring Festival, and restocked as soon as production resumed, which was scheduled on February 3 this year.

The factories, however, did not resume production until February 10 because of the outbreak that originated in the mainland city of Wuhan.

“The delay had a slight impact on the supply that should ordinarily be cushioned by the buffer,” Ho said. “But because of the increased demand fuelled by the rumour, people were buying 10 packets in one go, stocking mountains of rolls at home and hoarding a year’s supply – then of course there would not be enough to share.”

Consumer Council chief executive Gilly Wong Fung-han said: “The rumour was the final straw.”

Wong said the online rumour created panic among consumers when factories were closed amid uncertainties of how long the outbreak would last, as many people felt toilet paper was a daily necessity that could not be conveniently replaced.

But she added that the toilet paper suppliers had since resumed business as usual, providing a continuous supply while assuring the council of satisfactory import figures that suggested it would not take long for the market to stabilise.

“The problem now is not with supply, but allocation and distribution,” she continued. “Some districts have plenty of stock, while others are still looking at empty shelves.”

Wong advised consumers to stop hoarding to save time from queuing, avoid demand-driven price fluctuations, and prevent the health risk of using mouldy toilet paper.

In the long run, she believed there was a need to review the logistics of the product in times of special upsurge in demand, to improve the speed of delivering the rolls from warehouses to putting them on retailers’ shelves.

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