Gro­cery re­tail­ers in­sist they are ready to cope if lock­down bites again

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Special Report: Feeding The Nation - Laura Onita

When Le­ices­ter be­came the first Bri­tish city to suf­fer a se­cond lock­down, in June, su­per­mar­kets as­sumed that shop­pers might start hoard­ing again. They did not. Sales in Aberdeen re­mained sta­ble too, af­ter a spike in coro­n­avirus cases forced busi­nesses to shut ear­lier this month.

Gro­cers say that this is be­cause bat­tle-hard­ened Bri­tons have re­alised that there is no need to stock­pile.

In­deed, in­dus­try data in June sug­gests that trust in the food and con­sumer goods sec­tor has hit a seven-year high. But con­sumers can be fickle, so the ma­jor chains are pre­par­ing for the pos­si­bil­ity of a re­turn to stricter rules if a se­cond wave of Covid hits.

Lo­cal lock­downs pose lit­tle chal­lenge, says Andy Perry, who runs the sup­ply chain at Co-op.

“We’re al­most plan­ning for sea­sonal peaks, for pe­ri­ods of the year where it would nor­mally be quiet,” he says.

“A lot of the things we’ve done are still in place.”

Andrew Mur­phy, the di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions at Waitrose, be­lieves the firm is now much bet­ter placed to han­dle an­other up­swing in in­fec­tions.

“We think we’ve got a way of op­er­at­ing that mit­i­gates and man­ages [lo­cal lock­downs] well,” he says. “We’re not too concerned about that.”

Perry says his team will dust down the frame­work de­vel­oped dur­ing lock­down if panic buy­ing takes hold again. He adds: “I think we’re in a much bet­ter po­si­tion than we were at the very start of it.

“Would we have a bit of dis­rup­tion? Yes, but I don’t think it would be any­thing like be­fore.”

Tesco boss Dave Lewis says that min­is­ters’ mes­sag­ing will be key to avoid­ing chaos if Covid takes hold again – a warn­ing they would do well to heed af­ter months of con­flict­ing an­nounce­ments on schools, quar­an­tines and com­mut­ing.

“If the Gov­ern­ment calls dif­fer­ent de­grees of cri­sis, we have dif­fer­ent de­grees of op­er­at­ing the stores,” he says. “If there is one thing that is so im­por­tant, it is the clar­ity of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion. If it is lo­cal, [the guid­ance] needs to be lo­cal. If it is na­tional, then it needs to be na­tional.”

New rules such as com­pul­sory mask-wear­ing in stores tend to in­flu­ence how peo­ple shop and be­have, Lewis says. This can dent sales or drive harm­ful be­hav­iour, and it is es­sen­tial to think through the con­se­quences.

In­ad­ver­tently, some of the su­per­mar­kets’ plan­ning be­fore coro­n­avirus for how sup­ply chains would cope with a dis­or­derly Brexit helped them deal with the pres­sures they faced at the on­set of the cri­sis. At some gro­cers, the same teams have tack­led both prob­lems.

But al­though busi­nesses now know they can largely cope with dis­rup­tion far worse than any­thing likely un­der a no-deal exit from the Euro­pean Union, the sin­gle big­gest un­known re­mains what will hap­pen if there is fric­tion at the border.

“The tim­ing of this [exit] at the end of the year if there were to be a cliff edge is prob­a­bly the worst,” Lewis says. “The sup­ply chain will be full, pre­par­ing for and then ex­e­cut­ing on Christ­mas, so the abil­ity to build any stock up by the end of De­cem­ber will be more lim­ited than it was when we were plan­ning be­fore.”

‘Would we have a bit of dis­rup­tion? Yes, but I don’t think it would be any­thing like be­fore’

Gro­cers be­lieve panic buy­ing will not be as dam­ag­ing if lock­down rules are reim­posed

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