It feels like we have suddenly stepped into a parallel universe, where none of the normal conventions that have framed our lives apply.
Retailers who are normally the deadliest of competitors have started talking freely to each other, sharing information and ideas, and standing shoulder to shoulder in a combined effort to feed the nation. The Government has effectively nationalised the workforce and relaxed some of the normal industry competition rules. DEFRA and the British Retail Consortium are promoting industry co-ordination and co-operation as never seen before.
The Coronavirus emergency really has brought out the worst, and the best, in people.
One of the most critical issues all food retailers have had to address is panic buying. Of course, I can understand why people are fearful given the endless images we are confronted with, online and in the mainstream media, of desolate supermarket shelves and terror-stricken shoppers.
But stockpiling is inherently socially divisive: it is only an option for those who can afford it, and stripping the supermarket shelves denies poorer and more vulnerable people of the chance to buy the things they need. “Shop responsibly” has been my key message over the last fortnight, which I think has been heeded by many but obviously not by all.
Panic buying and stockpiling are also unnecessary because production has not dried up: although some factories are beginning to see the effects of staff going into self-isolation, ample quantities of food and toilet roll are still coming through. The current shortages will largely be resolved once people simply revert to their normal habits and shop for what they actually need – which I’m pleased to report is starting to happen.
On a positive note, we have seen numerous acts of kindness by our wonderful colleagues and customers. In Letchworth, our team actually went around other outlets buying toilet rolls so that they could give one to each elderly customer with their shopping.
Instances of customers stepping in and offering to pay for the shopping of elderly and vulnerable people are far too numerous to relate here.
Also heart-warming was the story of the couple whose engagement took place in our Tonbridge store after their planned holiday in Iceland (the country) was cancelled. We were so touched that we’ve offered (once the world starts turning again) to pay for their honeymoon, to … Iceland.
On the other side of the coin, we have seen the sickening destruction of two of our much-needed delivery vans in a night of disturbances in Southmead, Bristol and far, far too many instances of our store colleagues being abused and even physically assaulted by angry customers: usually enraged about stock shortages, or resentful of efforts to impose limits on their purchases to ensure that lines in high demand are available to as many people as possible. Selfishness, rudeness and a total lack of care for others are sadly part of every shop worker’s daily experience right now.
Yet those who work in retail have never been more in need. We have always called our store teams ‘frontline colleagues’ but the last two weeks really have felt like the front line in a war.
We are doing our very best to protect them by enforcing the new social distancing rules: limiting the number of customers allowed in each store, putting down tape to enforce the two metre social distancing separation, and installing protective screens for every till in every store – though fitting them on multiple checkouts in nearly 1,000 stores clearly can’t be achieved overnight.
Along with the rest of the world, we have ordered vast quantities of hand sanitisers, face masks and gloves, which are taking far too long to materialise. Although we now have hand sanitisers for our colleagues in all stores, we still don’t have enough to provide them for customer use. One million gloves are arriving for our store teams tomorrow, but the face masks that were promised to us weeks ago are now only scheduled to be with us by the middle of next week.
It is all very well for the Government to lay down the law on what retailers must do to protect their colleagues and customers, but it would help if they could give us some more practical support in expediting the delivery of the personal protective equipment I desperately want to be able to offer to all our store colleagues and home delivery drivers. The delays in this supply chain are one of my biggest frustrations right now.
The situation changes day to day and hour to hour, and the ability to think laterally and act quickly are at a premium. We were the first retailer to introduce priority shopping periods for the elderly and vulnerable: we are now having to consider whether these remains appropriate when those are precisely the groups most strongly urged to stay home.
Our Charitable Foundation has donated £150,000 to Age UK to support older people in this crisis and we have embedded a fundraising button for the National Emergencies Trust on our website’s home page.
We have also introduced segregated priority shopping hours in all stores for our wonderful NHS staff, following their inability to buy what they needed at the end of their shifts when the stores had been cleared out by panic buyers. There is pressure from many quarters to extend these to other key workers, but clearly it would not be appropriate to encourage others to mix with those most exposed to Covid-19. And, with most food stores already adopting reduced hours to enable them to restock and cope with staff shortages, there is sadly a limit to the number of priority periods we can offer.
In his seminal address to the nation on Monday, the Prime Minister urged everyone to use food delivery services wherever possible. But the reality is that current demand is vastly exceeding supply. We have done our best to restrict online ordering to the elderly, vulnerable and self-isolating, and we are working hard to make more delivery slots available, but each release is quickly snapped up. As with priority shopping hours in store, it is hard to enforce rules and we ultimately have to rely on the decency and goodwill of the public.
Therefore, I would actually urge the opposite of the Prime Minister: if you are healthy, not in a vulnerable category and adhere to social distancing guidelines, please do shop in-store – responsibly. This will enhance priority online for those who need it most.
Thankfully, over the last few days our sales have slackened – NOT a phrase I thought I would ever write! This is partly as the result of panic buyers leaving us with limited stock to sell, but also people’s realisation that they really don’t need that much loo roll.
Our supply chain team have been working day and night to expand our capacity, notably by forging links with foodservice companies and wholesalers which now have trucks and drivers to spare as a result of the closure of pubs and restaurants. We are therefore confident that our shelves, fridges and freezers will become better stocked in the coming weeks.
At Iceland we are conscious of providing a lifeline for very many people, serving five million customers every week through nearly 1,000 UK stores and through our home delivery and online shopping services. We are embedded in the heart of many communities, including some of the most disadvantaged in the UK, drawing our colleagues from within those localities.
None of the 25,000 people in the Iceland team, or the 2,000 more we are temporarily recruiting to help us through this crisis, is in any doubt about the importance of our responsibility to feed the nation. I would like to thank each and every one of them – from the store colleagues to our field teams around the country; our home delivery drivers to the depot delivery drivers; the depot workers to the central support team at Head Office. They are all playing an essential role.
My Iceland colleagues – and indeed our counterparts at other food retailers – are true heroes, serving the public selflessly in the front line of this battle against coronavirus. Above all I ask everyone to remember that. They are all doing their very best against massive odds.
And other than the collaboration and creative thinking borne out of never-before experienced supply change challenges, what else has the Covid-19 pandemic taught me?
I suppose, like many, I have been profoundly struck by a more existential perspective. Health really is everything – both human and planet. This enforced period of lockdown for billions of people around the world will be severely testing at a most personal level. But it is also an opportunity to reflect upon how heavily we tread on this planet, and the ultimate importance of family, friends and community.
There is light at the end of the tunnel.