The frustration felt by Waitrose staff in the face of its recent availability problems were summed up in conversation with one partner this weekend. It was, they remarked, “worse than covid”.

They bemoaned the supermarket’s widespread shortages of fresh and chilled over the past week, which at times had proven more stressful than working during the pandemic. At least then products were coming into stores, even if they were leaving quickly, they said.

It’s no wonder staff are feeling the pressure, given the level of fallout from the bungled update to the supermarket’s delivery system. In the Telegraph on Friday, it emerged there were 10-hour backlogs at some depots last week as workers were left checking lorries manually. According to an unnamed supplier source, Waitrose had to drastically cut down some orders placed as it was unable to manage usual stock levels. 

Waitrose says the offending IT issue has since been fixed, but the problems look far from over. On Wednesday a spokesman for the supermarket told The Grocer that some stores would continue to experience “knock-on” effects into the week. A quick look at the posts of frustrated customers on social media suggests many stores were still feeling those effects over the weekend. As one tweet summed up: “Thoughts and prayers with whomever is on Waitrose’s IT helpdesk this weekend.” Some stores continue to have gaps now.

And the effects on its reputation are likely to last far longer. While Waitrose has not been the only supermarket to suffer shortages or supplier issues of late, its high-end position in the market means it has taken far more of a beating.

“I’m giving up on Waitrose,” wrote the Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson in a separate piece on 1 June after a visit to an empty Waitrose fruit & veg aisle. Although the piece is admittedly sensationalist in tone – bizarrely blaming the shortages on chairman Sharon White’s “values” agenda – it does highlight a critical point.

Customers are willing to pay Waitrose prices because they trust they’ll be able to get excellent produce, and better customer service than in other supermarkets. Its brand is built on the fact that the supermarket holds itself to higher standards than its peers.

Empty shelves break this unwritten contract. And it isn’t a one-off, either. The latest supply problems represent the second time in seven months that the grocer has been left with empty shelves as a result of an IT glitch, following a bungled update November.

When faced with a cost of living crisis and resurgent M&S, executive director James Bailey will know Waitrose can ill afford such publicity. With every day that shortages go on – or perhaps more importantly, are perceived to go on – its brand message starts to sound ever more hollow.

That’s not to say that Waitrose doesn’t have credit in the bank. It continues to get lots right, leading the market for its animal welfare credentials and commitment to ethical sourcing within its supply chain.

Once again it was a Waitrose store that won last week’s Grocer 33. Its “attractive” Green Road store, in Meanwood, Leeds, was commended by our mystery shopper for its “helpful staff” – and ironically, it had the fewest out-of-stocks compared with its local rivals.

Partners have also generally been praised for how they’ve addressed the shortages, being open with customers rather than attempting to cover up the gaps.

These are all great things that Waitrose works hard to achieve. But what’s the point of great customer service if some stores are left with little to sell? This needs to be fixed quickly – or its reputation could have further to fall.