We need a co-ordinated approach to food supply, with support for small suppliers

Supermarket buyers pressurise suppliers to give their increased orders priority. How is that different from the much-maligned shopper panic buying in-store? If they succeed, the smaller retailers not receiving stock become the equivalent of the elderly lady or NHS nurse who is losing out in-store now.

Panic buying exists. It’s human nature, as was mapped out beautifully by Maslow back in 1954. Take another look at that motivation pyramid. The first word under the most basic (survival) need is ‘breathing’, followed by ‘food’. 

My preferred term is ‘hoarders’, because the only people genuinely panicking are the ones who can’t get stuff. Stocking up for three weeks is not hoarding, it’s common-sense planning when you’ve been told to isolate and expect a lockdown. Only a handful of idiots pull a pack of pasta off an empty-handed shopper when they already have a trolley full, yet this image is the one that makes the news. The better nature we crave is in the moment, not in the planning. A hoarder is not swayed by the argument that they should leave more on the shelf, because they see that as giving others a chance to hoard.

Relatively speaking, Brits love a queue. But people are still on guard for pushers-in until they reach the safety of the tape barriers. Just look at airports. Similarly, during this sort of crisis, watching others ‘push in’ motivates people to stock up before they usually would. So just like we need queue tape, we need quantity restrictions and store entry limitations, and earlier.

On the whole, UK grocers have stepped up brilliantly and there is now a list of measures that can be implemented quicker during the next crisis. But I believe something is missing. The ‘industry-will-find-a-way’ approach works, but has also exposed issues that need co-ordinated management. We know something is wrong when Morrisons CEO David Potts flags the need to delist suppliers with shorter notice. On the one hand he is right: keeping shelves full is easier with fewer suppliers. Equally, it’s ridiculous to think the knock-on effect is that manufacturing lines could be closed down during a surge in demand, with jobs lost. Take pasta as an example; instead of delisting suppliers, a co-ordinated approach could dedicate brands to retailers achieving supply chain simplicity, maintaining the supplier’s jobs and keeping all lines open.

In search of some silver lining, let’s look towards Brexit. Supply chains have been pressure-tested for no-deal disruption, and this crisis is uniting the country, not dividing it. Plus, when the crisis blows over the demand dip may not be that deep, as homes will keep long-life stocks across the new year. At least with Brexit toilet rolls won’t be such an issue. Perhaps Maslow’s theory should now be rewritten to include the need for a clean backside. 

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