mutti tinned tomato cans

Source: RH Amar

We’ve seen demand for both entry-level products for those tightening their belts, and premium brands for those wanting to treat themselves

Instead of kicking off our 75th anniversary celebrations this spring, my colleagues and I have found ourselves part of the national effort to keep Britain’s food supply chain moving amid the Covid-19 crisis. Overnight, we went from supplier of fine foods and premium brands, to simply supplier of foods.

Brand marketing exit stage left. Supply chain enter centre stage.

As one colleague described it recently, “I’ve gone from being a humble box shifter, to helping provide a basic human need”. And he’s been shifting a lot of boxes, with the likes of Mutti tomatoes, Del Monte canned fruit and Kikkoman soy sauce smashing monthly UK sales records.

A trend we’ve seen at the start of certainly the past four recessions is a polarisation of consumer choice – increased demand for entry-level products for those tightening their belts, alongside increased demand for premium brands for those wanting to treat themselves eating in when they can’t eat out. We expect such brands to continue their success well beyond the immediate crisis.

But there is a Covid cloud to retail’s silver lining, with the overnight demise of foodservice, a sector that will surely take a lot of time and pain to recover. For the majority in the sector, cashflow, surplus stocks, job security and business survival are growing concerns every week.

In reality, Covid-19 has made us all adapt our businesses. From major retailers rapidly ramping up online delivery slots, to local restaurants offering delivery, takeaway and even the odd retail pack of flour, I’ve been impressed by a newfound flexibility and pace. Things that might normally have taken months have been done in weeks or even days – and long may this continue. Of course, businesses need to maintain operational efficiency, but not always at the expense of commercial opportunities. On occasion, a bit of old-school trading can do just as well as rigorous category management.

“Working from home”, until recently three of our chairman’s (my father) least favourite words, has been a revelation in terms of improved collaboration, both internally and externally. This collaboration was almost forced upon us as customers sought stock to keep their shelves filled. Collaboration will need to evolve to issues like forecasting and best-before dates, both of which have a big impact on food waste.

In the early weeks of the crisis, my LinkedIn feed was awash with posts (including some of our own) about food donations to local hospitals and food charities. In recent weeks, these posts seem to have dried up. Does the corporate philanthropy stop before the crisis is over? RH Amar has a long-standing commitment to give 10% of profits to charity. Is it too wishful to imagine a world in which every business did something similar?

We’ve all heard reference to “the new normal”. For me, this means not going back to exactly how things were on 1 March 2020. I like the increased agility, flexibility and pace. I like closer collaboration. I like donating food to people who need it. I like not missing dinner with my family.

We are entering what could be the most challenging economic period in our lifetime. Businesses, and individuals, that embrace the learnings of the past few months will be those most likely to thrive, not just survive.