Only a week after the first case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was confirmed in South Africa (and two more cases since then), fear of the virus spreading is changing consumer behaviour and demand patterns. Anecdotally, over the weekend we noticed a surging demand for sanitizers to the extent that several retailers ran out of stock. In other countries such as the United States, consumers are in ‘panic-buying’ mode, clearing shelves of everything from cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer to pasta, rice and bottled water. The United Kingdom is experiencing similar behaviour with retailers reporting a spike in demand for essential products and foods.

Will SA experience similar behaviour?

Will South Africa experience similar behaviour? It is too early to tell, but we find the growing demand for sanitizers, spooked by fear of the virus spreading, similar to consumer behaviour in the United States and the United Kingdom when the first cases were reported. If a similar shift in consumer behaviour were to happen in South Africa, in the very short run, an increase in demand would be a positive for retailers, especially food and other essentials. In the medium term, however, depending on whether the virus continues to spread, there might be a decline in demand possibly due to quarantine restrictions, business and school closures and fear of exposure to public spaces with large numbers of people.

Corona map
Map of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Agricultural suppliers will be affected

Businesses at the forefront of such an adverse shock would include restaurants (and subsequently agricultural suppliers), public transport, hairdressers and similar personal services providers, to name a few. So far, we haven’t observed much changes in consumer patterns in such establishments, at least from anecdotal observations over the past few days. The traffic in most restaurants around Pretoria and Johannesburg seemed normal. In the United States, restaurants and fast food stores have increased their in-store cleanliness efforts as a way to ease consumer fears. We will be monitoring if such efforts and consumer behaviour become prevalent in South Africa in the coming weeks, and what would that mean for the food retailers and thereafter demand for agricultural products and prices.

Global agricultural value chains

Another area we are monitoring and highlighted last week is global agricultural value chains. The potential decline in Asia’s agriculture demand and falling prices could see the value of South Africa’s agriculture exports to Asia also declining in 2020. As highlighted in our note on 2 March 2020, South Africa’s agriculture is export-orientated, with exports of roughly $10 billion in 2019, the potential disruptions the COVID-19 could cause on global value chains is a key concern. This is specifically the case for Asia, as the epicentre of the outbreak, and an area that accounts for a quarter of South Africa’s agriculture exports. The commodities most exposed to the Asian market are wool, fruit, grains, beverages, vegetables and red meat.

Fear changes consumer behaviour

Globally, what we have learned over the past few weeks is that fear changes consumer behaviour and subsequently changing demand patterns for products. South Africa appears to be experiencing early signs of this through spiking demand for sanitizers. If this extends to food and other essentials as is the case in other countries affected by the virus, agribusinesses will fundamentally experience the shocks in the domestic market (possibly through spiking demand first and softening in the medium term). The implications of this on food price inflation are unclear in the near term. Suffice to say, South Africa has large food supplies for 2020. Hence, we have placed our forecast for food price inflation this year at about 4% year on year.

Of course, COVID-19 is a world-wide shock and it remains too early to make any definitive assessment of the potential economic effect. There is still a lot of unknowns, including how far the virus could still spread, particularly in Africa, how soon global efforts to contain the spread will be effective and how quickly consumer behaviour normalises after the virus is overcome. These are some of the issues that we will be paying close attention to going forward. – Wandile Sihlobo, Agbiz

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