Don’t just blame selfish shoppers for empty shelves, it’s the way food is supplied to supermarkets

PUBLISHED: 08:27 30 March 2020 | UPDATED: 09:37 30 March 2020

Supermarket shelves have been stripped bare with people panic buying. Picture: Submitted

Supermarket shelves have been stripped bare with people panic buying. Picture: Submitted

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Panic buying has become common throughout March as we all deal with new coronavirus guidelines. But, Patrick Ward argues, its not the fault of greedy shoppers

I’m not usually one for planning. My after-work routine usually involves texting my wife about what we want for dinner and then popping into Tesco on the way home for a bag of pasta and pack of mushrooms.

But that’s all changed now. Staying at home with high-risk family members makes daily shopping trips risky. No more impulse chocolate bars or ready-to-eat southern chicken-style vegan bites for lunch – for the herbivores among us still craving the familiar taste of cat food.

Instead, once a week, I put on my rucksack and hit the streets. And, yes, some of my main quest items are the ones mostly lacking – pasta (I most recently found a pack of macaroni behind the laundry detergent), soap (I settled on the lone bar of doughnut-scented Imperial Leather, which I hope I never have to use) and loo roll (I’ll try to eat less fibre).

Lots of us are changing our shopping habits like this. If you live alone and you’re worried about catching the virus, for example, it makes sense to have enough in the kitchen, especially long-life items like pasta. And we can’t all wash our hands 30 times a day without a little more soap than usual, jam doughnut with chocolate sprinkles flavour or otherwise.

There has been a lot of talk of panic-buying, of stockpiling and of selfish shoppers, to the extent that it’s almost become accepted wisdom that this is the main reason for our understocked shops. But while there are certainly some people taking more than they need, I’m starting to worry that this is a convenient bogeyman for a larger problem. As can often happen in a crisis, we are blaming each other rather than a flawed system.

The problem stems from the way our food supplies work. 
Every time we go through a supermarket checkout, our purchases are recorded and the data crunched. From this, retailers might work out that, for example, people eat more soup in the winter, or that there’s always someone who needs to stock up on Easter eggs in early January.

This means retailers can fine-tune things, like how much they need to spend on the drivers who ferry products from depot to shop, or how many pickers are needed in the fields. An obvious example would be the extra staff supermarkets hire in the run up to Christmas. The turnaround from producer to consumer is trimmed to an absolute minimum, cutting costs for things like rental of storage space.

This profit-friendly “just in time” approach to our food supply chains relies on stability, and, as we can see, the world isn’t always stable. In normal times, people would take in around 30pc of their daily food and drink outside of the home. Now, with people told to stay put, that burden falls on what you have in the cupboard, not on the paper bag containing your Greggs Steak Bake. Research organisation Kantar notes that spending on an average trip to the shop has gone up by 16pc a month, yet our complex supply systems just can’t cope even with this.

As former Waitrose managing director Lord Mark Price told Newsnight recently: “The supply of goods, the manufacture of goods, is in good shape... The challenge that the supermarkets are facing at the moment is getting that food into their distribution centres and then having enough space, and having enough lorries and drivers to get it to the shops, and then being able to keep it on the shelves.”

Coupled with the extra strain on food banks, loss of earnings and social isolation, this is looking like a crisis of hunger waiting to happen. The free market has regulated how we have been fed for decades, but this crisis has shown just how fragile that model is. Significant co-ordination between government and retailers might be the only way to avoid a crisis upon a crisis.

Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation, put it like this: “At present, the UK’s response to food emergencies created and compounded by Covid-19 is ad hoc and lacking strong enough leadership from government. We must fix this immediately, before the problem gets away from us and we miss the opportunity to protect those most in need of support. We need to get our heads together, now.”

It’s easy to blame the shadowy stockpiler for all this mess, and we should all try to limit what we buy – every little helps. But we need to think about how to create a food distribution system that works for everyone – even if that means ripping up the orthodoxies of the present.


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