As shoppers cleared the shelves of staple goods such as toilet roll and pasta in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, retailers acquitted themselves well.
While some consumers panicked, grocers and others kept cool heads. Sure, there may have been plenty of pictures in the press and on social media over the weekend of gaping voids where hand sanitiser used to be, but stores handled the footfall, which some described as similar to Christmas, deftly.
By Sunday morning, store managers were proudly tweeting images of shops restored to pristine form and paying tribute to their staff for how they had managed the mayhem.
Retailers have, where necessary, imposed buying restrictions on in-demand products without creating a sense of crisis. They have explained, swiftly and clearly, why consumers need not work themselves into a frenzy and needlessly stockpile. It’s a testament to retailers’ ability to keep the system functioning and react rapidly to volatile circumstances.
“Many retailers will wonder whether it is wise for so much of the industry to be so reliant on one source of supply”
The government has generally done a decent job so far in its handling of the crisis, re-emphasising today that there is no need for shoppers to stockpile. But once again, retail didn’t feature on its list of priorities – despite the industry’s crucial role in the supply of essential goods.
One grocer told the BBC that health secretary Matt Hancock’s claims to have worked with supermarkets was “totally made up”, and that retailers have been working “round the clock” to ensure as little disruption as possible to the food supply.
Retailers’ speed of response is admirable and typical, but in the longer-term perhaps coronavirus will bring time to reflect, opening up new ways of thinking and operating.
Although China acted swiftly to address the infection, meaning disruption to the global supply chain may not be as bad as initially feared, the picture is not yet clear in the aftermath of the extended lunar New Year shutdowns. Whatever the outcome, many retailers will wonder whether it is wise for so much of the industry to be so reliant on one source of supply and may seek to spread their risk more than they do at present.
Another lesson also comes from China: how etail prowess showed its worth, both in catering for consumers and in supply chain adaptability. Services such as Alibaba’s Ele.me have been providing contactless delivery options for customers such as drop-off points to minimise the risk of infection, and technology was deployed to open new routes to market, for instance for farmers whose produce would otherwise have been wasted.
Such initiatives are likely to outlive the coronavirus crisis because they address unmet needs in new ways, and the growth of online options may be another permanent result in the UK. Food etailers such as Ocado have reported spikes in demand, prompting messages to customers to book further in advance than normal. It’s not hard to imagine that a substantial number of new or previously occasional customers of online grocers will never go back to the old weekly trip to the shops once the health emergency is over.
The other longer-term lesson coronavirus may offer relates to Brexit. The supply challenges will, of course, be different, but some aspects of the present difficulties may, in the end, be a useful dress rehearsal if the industry needs to turn on a sixpence and deal with extreme supply-and-demand volatility.
“Brexit preparations have, in fact, helped grocers handle coronavirus”
Brexit preparations have, in fact, helped grocers handle coronavirus. One told the BBC: “We are using processes and staffing levels we set up in case of a no-deal Brexit.”
Remote working, if it becomes necessary or widespread, might also have some positive knock-on effects. While retailers need to confront the implications of coronavirus at pace, not being in the office might stimulate greater productivity and imagination from head office staff released from constant unnecessary interruption that often accompanies their jobs. They might be able to better prioritise, and a little more time to think might result in eureka moments that change their businesses for the better.
And when people are able to properly mingle again – soon it must be hoped – offices can then better fulfil their purpose, to get the best out of groups of people and the talents they bring.