Waitrose empty shelves lettuce shortage

As we all know, availability has been an issue in the food supply chain for several months now. From its early iteration in the convenience channel, it’s spread to the supermarkets. And as the economy has opened up it’s extended to the foodservice side, this week culminating in the enforced closure of 50 Nando’s restaurants.

We all know the causes by now. What we’ve not known is where exactly the gaps are. We’ve seen gaps on the shelves at an anecdotal level, in person and on social media. We’ve seen it in the Grocer 33. And we’re still reporting new instances. But whether it’s by category, by supplier or by retailer, the picture has been partial and piecemeal. Until now.

This week The Grocer publishes data showing when and where the pinch points are. And encouragingly it suggests the availability crisis had passed its peak even before self-isolating rules were loosened this week, as the industry made new arrangements and reprioritised. That will be of relief to the government too. Even though this has been a bigger supply chain crisis for the grocers than last year’s lockdown (due to the driver shortages and also their inability this time to backfill in store with temporary workers as the economy reopens), the panic buying seen at the start of the pandemic has been averted. You may not get exactly what you intended on a shop, but out of stocks, overall, are limited, aided further by falling demand.

Nonetheless the crisis is by no means over. With extra pay, signing-on bonuses and other actions, the supermarkets have been guilty of passing the problem on to others – including their own suppliers. Some have also been slow to adjust practices to make them more efficient, with many truckloads still partial and backhauling limited. Brexit hasn’t helped there either and new rules coming in October and particularly January will create additional problems and paperwork.

At the same time, HGV drivers increasingly have the industry over a barrel, with industrial action another spanner in the works. The extra costs will also have to be passed on. And all this is before we even consider Christmas planning.