International News - SARS outbreak panics shoppers in Hong Kong

The outbreak of the deadly SARS virus in Hong Kong has severely dented the territory's retail sector, with many stores recording a sharp decrease in sales. However, supermarkets and pharmacies are struggling to meet soaring demand.

FootFall figures released this week show a 15 per cent drop in shopper numbers compared with last year. Quarantines imposed on infected areas, along with cancelled flights and reduced tourism figures, are hitting sales.

An Internet hoax describing Hong Kong as an 'infected area' led to panic buying in supermarkets, and the World Health Organisation is advising people to avoid the city.

Customer counts at HMV in Hong Kong are down by more than 30 per cent, according to HMV Japan & Asia president Paul Dezelsky. To lure customers back to its stores, it is offering double loyalty card points at specified times.

Along with many other retailers in the territory, its staff are now wearing face masks.

Meanwhile, Park'n'Shop, one of the territory's largest supermarket chains, has enjoyed a sharp increase in sales as people shy away from restaurants and cook at home, a spokeswoman said.

Hong Kong's largest pharmacy, Watson's, has seen a 30 per cent increase in sales of health products such as vitamins and face masks, as well as household cleaning products since the outbreak, according to the spokeswoman.

However, this has been balanced by a similarly dramatic drop in other sales such as cosmetics and toiletries.