Black Friday is usually one of the busiest times of the year for Hong Kong’s online shopping agents, which help people send back internet purchases from overseas for a fee. But the new coronavirus outbreak has spurred a surge in orders unmatched by what’s typically seen during the post-Thanksgiving shopping bonanza, according to one company.

“This week’s merchandise volume and inquiries have skyrocketed all of a sudden,” wrote Hong Kong logistics company Buyandship in a Facebook post. “It’s a few times more than the annual Black Friday shopping season.”

The company says over the past week, it helped clients ship home around 15,000 boxes of face masks from around the world, equivalent to an estimated 7.5 million individual masks. On Thursday, it asked customers not to mail more purchases to its warehouse in Japan, which has “exceeded its maximum capacity.”

People wait in line to purchase protective masks at a store in Hong Kong on January 29. (Picture: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

The new coronavirus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has set off a scramble for masks across the country. While mainland shopping sites such as JD.com and Alibaba’s Taobao have vowed to freeze the price of masks sold on their platforms, stock appears to be running low.

A search for the term “mask” on Taobao yields a message that says masks are being “prioritized for disease-fighting efforts on the frontline” and are therefore in short supply. On JD.com, most listings for surgical masks are marked as “preorder” and not available for immediate purchase.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

In Hong Kong, frustrated crowds lined up in droves at stores that were selling limited quantities of masks. Many left empty-handed and disappointed. Others tried to buy online from countries such as Japan and the US but saw their orders eventually canceled by some sellers.

People lining up at a cosmetics shop in Hong Kong to buy face masks on January 30. (Picture: Kin Cheung/AP)

Several Hong Kong-based delivery companies are now warning customers about delays due to the high volume of orders. Lotpost and Shipbao said their Japanese depots have seen a dramatic increase in packages. Japan’s post office also apologized for delays, saying it’s experiencing a rapid growth in international mail to China, Hong Kong and Macau.

Still, some people are holding up hope that their purchases will make it.

A Hong Kong-based lawyer in her early 30s, surnamed Ho, tells us she bought nearly 600 masks from Amazon Japan and Amazon Germany over a week ago. They arrived at the warehouses of her delivery agents, and she’s hoping to receive her purchases in about 10 days.

“I have less than 50 masks now at home for my family of four adults,” she said.

While medical experts in Hong Kong are telling people to wear disposable surgical masks to avoid the coronavirus, those running out of supplies are advised to stay home and go out less. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s recommendations regarding the new coronavirus don't include mask-wearing. Instead, it calls on people to wash their hands frequently and avoid anyone who has a fever or cough, among other advice.