The supermarket chains say there are no shortages – just delays in meeting customer demand. So how many product categories are affected by ‘delays in meeting demand’ at your supermarket?
Comment: “There is no depression in New Zealand. There are no sheep on our farms,” sung Blam Blam Blam, facetiously.
They might add, there are no shortages in our supermarkets. We can all stay perfectly calm.
“There aren’t flour shortages, there is simply increased customer demand, and it takes time to move the product through the network. If you find a gap on the shelf when you visit our advice is pop back the next day.”
– Antoinette Laird, Foodstuffs
That’s certainly the message from New World, Pak’nSave and Countdown this weekend, seemingly belying the big gaps emerging on some of the shelves. When I visited my local Pak’nSave, there were few noodles and no flour. Others around New Zealand are reporting similar experiences to me.
Shopping online, too, friends say their orders turned up half-filled. One received none of the fruit and veges she’d ordered. Her Countdown was out of stock.
Consumers seem willing to extend the supermarkets a grace period. There were already big delays in the supply chain, even before these alert Level 4 restrictions. Truckies are working around the clock. And none of us would want to encourage panic-buying and hoarding.
Suppliers have been especially forgiving. Foodstuffs North Island has told suppliers it is blocking supermarket orders for more than 8300 non-essential product lines, to make space on the trucks for staples. That’s the livelihoods of those food producers gone – most have nowhere else to sell in lockdown – but I haven’t heard a word of complaint.
The supermarket chains insist there are no shortages – just delays in meeting customer demand. “There aren’t flour shortages, there is simply increased customer demand, and it takes time to move the product through the network,” says Antoinette Laird, Foodstuffs’ head of corporate affairs. “If you find a gap on the shelf when you visit our advice is pop back the next day.”
(That’s not so easy nor so advisable in Level 4).
Countdown’s Kate Porter also rejects reports of outages. “Just as with any other product, we try to order in what we predict customers will need, but of course if there is unpredictable shopping behaviour like there is at the moment, there will be gaps.”
The questions are, how unpredictable is this shopping behaviour? All the supermarkets ran out of flour in the last Level 4 lockdown.
And how much are the not-shortages entirely because of demand, predictable or otherwise? Last week, on one day alone, Foodstuffs told suppliers it failed to send its daily delivery trucks to 36 supermarkets in the lower North Island.
“If they are experiencing capacity reduction issues due to store closures, and staff in isolation, then I would consider this to be a very logical decision to ensure that New Zealand shoppers can purchase what they need to live at the expense of a few treats no one actually needs.”
– Nick Hogendijk, Hexis Quadrant
If we accept that there are problems in the supply chain, where are they? The answer is, right along the length of the chain.
We all know about the international supply chains. But even where there is sufficient local produce, there are reported delays in manufacturing enough packaging. Then there are the trucking bottlenecks throughout the country.
Even when the product gets to the supermarket, stores in Auckland and Wellington have been forced to send home staff to test and self-isolate, leaving fewer workers to stock the shelves.
Nick Hogendijk, the managing partner of consumer goods and service consultancy Hexis Quadrant, says we should look to the lead of Australian supermarkets, which close early to allow staff time to clean the store and restock all shelves overnight, to ensure consumers get the essentials they need. And there are staff keeping an eye on certain product areas to ensure shoppers only buy what they need.
He backs Foodstuffs’ decision to block some non-essential products like chocolate bars, soft drink and gift cards, to free up capacity for core staples. “If they are experiencing capacity reduction issues due to store closures, and staff in isolation, then I would consider this to be a very logical decision to ensure that New Zealand shoppers can purchase what they need to live at the expense of a few treats no one actually needs.”
Consumers have shown that, given good information, they will respond calmly.
New Zealanders will not break down the doors of their supermarkets in a mad rush on flour (Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin), noodles (Auckland), meat and sugar (Hamilton), salmon (Bay of Plenty), or dairy products (Hawke’s Bay).
What is galling, though, is to not be trusted with good information. One of the most widely-applicable lessons learned in this pandemic is the importance of transparency.
And that applies not just to officials talking to the public, but also to businesses talking to their customers.