These are harrowing times for all of us. If there is a silver lining for this industry it is not simply that we all have to eat (as is oft observed) but that, unlike so many other industries right now, we all have a purpose. Food and drink is at the heart of this nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. And grocery retailers and suppliers are working flat out to meet the unprecedented demand, as consumption swings further towards the take-home market following the latest pronouncements from HMG last night.
So we wanted to extend our support, admiration and gratitude to all our readers, customers, partners and friends in the UK food and drink industry. The passion and commitment has been truly awesome. Supermarket workers, on the frontline of the industry, have shown incredible bravery, resilience and flexibility, in the face of extreme workloads, stress and provocation. Suppliers too have cranked up production, and flexed operations with impressive speed: distilleries, for example, have not only switched production from gin to hand sanitisers, but lobbied the government successfully to waive the duty.
And it’s not just grocers and their suppliers. On the foodservice wholesale side, both Bidfood and JJ Foodservice have already launched direct-to-consumer services. Restaurants are doing home delivery. Pubs are starting farmers’ markets. Hubs have also been set up to find a home (literally) for the huge volumes of food and drink that have been cut off with the closure of pubs, restaurants, cafés and other foodservice outlets.
The industry is working together in every sense. Behind the scenes, lobby groups have worked tirelessly around the clock to persuade the government to suspend competition legislation, and other rules and regulations, so resources can be shared and supply lines not only remain open but can increase. Only this week, for example, Brakes and Bidfood started pulling together to deliver food parcels to the hundreds of thousands forced to self-isolate, including the elderly and others with underlying health conditions.
However, this is not just a message of thanks. There are significant concerns about the government’s response. While grocery retailers and suppliers have been designated as key workers, there are still fights to be had to recognise the importance of associated industries such as packaging, ingredients, chemicals and refrigerants.
Mixed messages are another big issue. Both retailers and manufacturers face the tricky task of balancing the government’s latest advice to limit the number of staff going to work to the ‘bare essentials’ with the need to produce more food as the nation continues to face unprecedented demand. They also have the huge responsibility of keeping their staff and customers safe, while maintaining their workforce as more people are forced to self-isolate or become sick. Waitrose has already announced social distancing in stores, and limits on the number of customers allowed in at any one time, while the likes of Morrisons and Aldi are installing protective barriers at checkouts. No doubt we’ll see more measures adopted in the days to come.
And, of course, pivoting supply to retail isn’t easy. Most wholesalers and suppliers are set up to produce in bulk. There are legislative, specification, manufacturing and packaging hurdles. And all the while the clock is ticking, with these businesses in grave danger of going bust, and more jobs lost.
Clearly there will be winners and losers as the product mix changes. That’s good news for some suppliers, as supermarkets focus on volume, but they are bound to pay less attention to smaller suppliers, who require more hand-holding. And, of course, shoppers are less likely to splash out on luxuries when eating at home, especially when facing a crisis of this kind.
So what about The Grocer in all this? We are very clear on our purpose. We are here to help and support the industry through this crisis. We will inform, we will share, we will campaign, we will investigate, we will connect and – perhaps just as important – we will correct, so that fake news is dispelled, and the hysteria and sensationalism in some quarters of the media is tempered by our balanced and authoritative approach to news gathering.
Not surprisingly, we are currently seeing a huge spike in traffic to our website from not only the trade but consumers too, as we all look to make sense of this horrendous situation.
We are also making regular appearances on TV and radio stations to help explain to shoppers what’s going on, and to provide further reassurance about the continuity of supply.
Of course there will be bad news to report. But we will be just as interested in the positives. In the brilliant efforts of the industry, and the heroism of individuals within it.
Since 1862 The Grocer has supported the industry, through thick and thin, including two World Wars. Indeed, it was integral to the government’s rationing efforts. Mercifully, rationing is not on the cards in this crisis, but it is a crisis like no other the industry has faced. We shall face it together.
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