While the UK is in the grip of the coronavirus crisis, Channel 4’s Dispatches has been investigating whether the nation’s supermarkets are able to deal with these extraordinary times, in which shoppers across the country have resorted to stockpiling and panic buying leaving many retailers’ shelves empty.
Tonight, a special Dispatches fronted by retail journalist Harry Wallop will show concerns among food suppliers that sickness and staff shortages could have major impact on availability of groceries in a matter of weeks.
Nationwide sales of toilet roll up £17m, leading to public services like homeless shelters and schools to appeal directly to toilet paper factories for help and how wholesalers are being cleared of tinned goods, toiletries and medicines as deliveries increase to address rising demand.
Demand for fresh produce is surging. Victoria Shervington-Jones, who runs a business in Wales supplying eggs from over 39,000 hens, tells Dispatches reporter Harry Wallop: “Our sales have probably trebled in the last fortnight. Obviously, the catering trade has dipped because there’s not so many people going to hotels, restaurants and cafes. The shop trade has just gone absolutely bonkers”.
But with concerns that the spread of Covid-19 could result in 20% of the British workforce taking sick leave at any one time, food suppliers could come under much greater pressure to fulfil orders in a matter of weeks.
The availability of workers in farms and factories and logistics workers such as lorry drivers will be a critical factor in whether superstores will cope with consumer demand in the coming months. As the virus continues to spread, food suppliers face a balancing act of managing increased demand from supermarket orders and ensuring groceries reach retailers and consumers. Shervington-Jones adds: “If something happens to my van drivers, it’s going to be big trouble.”
Government policy taking retailers by surprise
Shoppers have flocked to supermarkets up and down the country following the Prime Minister’s daily policy updates, which in a matter of days have drastically changed the country’s way of life. This week’s government announcements have seen millions of workers told to work from home, schools and universities across the UK made to send students home, and pubs and restaurants asked to shut down indefinitely to stop the spread of the virus. These unprecedented interventions from Westminster have brought about sudden changes to consumer habits, to which the retail sector has very quickly needed to adapt to meet unexpected demand.
Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability for the British Retail Consortium tells reporter Harry Wallop: “Last week… we saw quite a marked change in the government policy to tackle the virus – absolutely right, that’s what the scientists need to do – but there was very little notice of that for the retailers. So [retailers] constantly need to be very nimble and agile to cope with how consumers then react to the changing policies of government.”
Toilet roll panic
Toilet paper has seen a notable surge in demand in stores, despite no indication that production or supply could be interrupted during the crisis. Sales of toilet paper are up £17m compared with the same week last year – almost 75% more than usual. In many superstores, customers have been greeted with empty shelves as a result of bulk buying. In the programme, reporter Harry Wallop is granted access to one toilet paper factory where normal production of 130,000 rolls a week has increased to 170,000 rolls a week – the maximum they are able to produce at any one time.
With retailers increasing their orders to keep up with customer sales, other public services are also struggling to get vital stock of toilet paper. Factory boss Khurram Iqbal remarks on the situation: “People who can’t find toilet paper on shop shelves are ringing here saying ‘Can you help us?’. Homeless shelters are ringing here asking if we can help them. A school rung up and asked if we can help them. It’s a really desperate situation at the moment”.
Wholesalers supplying to smaller retailers and shopkeepers are also feeling the strain of consumer demand. At one Bestway warehouse in West London, supplies of toilet roll, tinned goods like baked beans and over the counter medicines like ibuprofen are selling rapidly. Despite new stock arriving up to three times a day, products on display are still running low or selling out within hours.
The new normal?
With the latest government advice suggesting that current public health efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19 could be in place for months rather than weeks ahead, former Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King predicts that supermarkets and shoppers will need to adapt to a very different retail experience for some time to come: “We will see less choice. One of the things that the supermarkets can do with their suppliers is make what they buy less varied and less complex to ensure that manufacturers are much more efficient, because they will have their own challenges in terms of their own recourses. What we are experiencing today is the new normal for many months.”
CORONAVIRUS: CAN OUR SUPERMARKETS COPE? CHANNEL 4 DISPATCHES, TONIGHT AT 7:30PM CHANNEL 4