Shelf Life

An anonymous supermarket
employee offers a glimpse down
the ransacked aisles

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First, they came for the toilet roll. And we did not speak up, because we thought it was funny at the time.

The reaction over Covid-19 has caused an auto-immune response of the retail system

For those of us working on the replenishment team at a supermarket – that’s shelf stackers to you – the basic rule is availability über alles. The store assesses what it needs through till receipts, purchase histories, loyalty card data and predictive algorithms, the wagons roll from the depots, we get to work and the endless cycle of consumption goes on.

In normal times, if availability across the store drops to around 95 per cent, the night shift hears about it from its managers.

The idea that a horde of bog roll bandits could just descend on stores and break the system basically because they didn’t want to be caught short during a virus seemed at first to be so bizarre as to be almost unthinkable. And anyway, it wasn’t happening round here. It was far away, like a rumour of war.

But then the unthinkable happened. The boggies aisle started looking a bit ragged, then thoroughly shopped out. And then completely empty. Demand had outstripped our ability to resupply.

By the time they came for the pasta, we were beginning to get a little worried. But we had no time to worry, because the action moved on to the rice, the cereals, the tinned tomatoes and the UHT milk. Anxious shoppers began to make serious inroads into the freezer aisles and strip the shelves of detergent and washing-up liquid. Then they came for the eggs. And the cake mix. And the bread. And the flour.

Next it was the turn of the tinned goods. Then the final avalanche descended on the store as a whole, sweeping away produce (fruit and veg), meat and fish, and finally – when the government announced that the pubs were to close – BWS: beer, wines and spirits.

Last Monday I went in for my shift and saw a colleague staggering out of the store on his way home. In retail jargon, a thoroughly shopped store has been “battered”.

“So it’s been battered, has it?” I asked him. “It’s been stripped,” he said. That is, it’s been nuked.

The rumour that people had been trying to buy the shelves turned out to be false, but almost everything else had gone. The cabbages had gone. The liver had gone. The tinned ratatouille was a distant memory.

So how did it happen? There’s an idea out there that supermarket retailing is a kind of mining operation. There’s a vast endlessly replenished pit full of consumer items out there that supermarkets simply shovel out on to the shelves, digging harder at times of higher demand.

In fact, on the just-in-time system used in retail, supermarkets buy no more than what their data tells them that consumers will buy at any given time and suppliers produce to meet this target.
A typical delivery load contains a little more than can be put on the shelves at the point at which it arrives, to allow for peak hours shopping. When the night shift clocks on, the first thing it does is work this excess – known as the “backstock” or “overs” – before the night’s delivery arrives.

That night, there was no backstock. There were knots of anxious customers hanging around by the promotion ends waiting for us to put something on the shelves. And there were night staff wandering around trying not to catch anyone’s eye, desperately hoping that the night’s delivery would turn up soon while knowing that most of it would be gone well before midday the next day.

It was clear at this point that we had moved beyond a typical eruption of panic buying into a sort of existential retail crisis. People are shopping now not to get what they need or want, but because they have lost confidence in the ability of supermarkets to supply these needs and wants when they are needed and wanted. And when they cannot find what they are looking for they take anything that happens to be available, like shoppers used to do in the Soviet Union.

The paradox of empty shelves is that they generate customers at exactly the moment when supermarkets need time out to fill those shelves. Just as the Covid-19 virus sometimes causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy tissue, the reaction over Covid-19 has caused a kind of auto-immune response of the retail system. Our customers are attacking the means of consumption by which they live.

How this came to be will one day be the subject of many books, learned papers and business school seminars. Certainly, the government’s abrupt move from complacency to panic didn’t help. And I wish people would stop posting endless pictures of empty shelves on social media. That really doesn’t help. Here’s a small suggestion. Before you come to the store, check out what you have and maybe ask if it will do you till tomorrow.

If you really need us, we’ll do our best. If enough of you can hold out till tomorrow – well, it won’t be any worse, and it just might be a little bit better.

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Interact: Responses to Shelf Life

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