Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies, University of Stirling.
The empty shelves in supermarkets at the start of the pandemic starkly illustrated the importance of the supply chain to consumers as well as retailers. Food retail supply chains came under extreme pressure as sales volumes and volatility spiked. Consumer demand was redirected from cafes and restaurants, worries emerged about supplies in lockdown and consumers initially reacted by shopping more often and stockpiling.
Whilst there has been much discussion about the ‘failure’ of the retail supply chain, in reality, retailers have coped well under enormously difficult circumstances by simplifying the things they could control.
Product lines were de-listed and production and supply focused on a more limited range of brands and lines. They was rationing on certain lines. Online shopping was expanded by many food retailers, but this expansion was subject to controls on product volumes and alterations to the picking timing. Some 24-hour store operations were closed overnight to allow shelf restocking and online shopping picking to be carried out more effectively. Frozen food saw an expansion as consumers stockpiled products in their homes.
These mitigation steps hold lessons for making food retail supply chains more resilient as further challenges, including Brexit, affect them.
Post-coronavirus, the experience of it will inform decisions about reinforcing the resilience of supply systems. There should be a more strategic reconsideration of the sources of supply, a focus on shorter, tighter supply systems, probably a simplification of lines and ranges and both permanent and temporary introductions of some of the restrictions on consumers.
While it is impossible to remove all the risks to product supply, retailers and producers can seek to mitigate disruption, all the time minimising cost implications to the business and consumers.