retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

In a year of massive unpredictability, we finally can say that we probably know what’s coming next.

Covid cases are skyrocketing around the world and certainly in the United States. Unlike what we saw in February and March, this time it isn’t just happening in New York and other large cities. Now it is everywhere.

Based on what happened when this story was new, we can expect another spate of enforced lockdowns throughout the country. That in turn will lead to the population cocooning at home, which means increased demand for all manner of supermarket products from baking goods to cleaning supplies.

Sadly, that also probably means lots of panic shopping and kinks in the supply chain. Honestly, eight or nine months were hardly enough time to stock up to avoid the empty shelves and endless news reports we saw in March. So, brace yourself. The storm is coming again.

Hopefully, though, we’ve all learned from what happened in March. Already we see retailers attempting to slow the storm by limiting purchases of key items before panic shopping begins.

Despite the limits on what anyone can do, it’s instructive to review in detail what happened earlier this year to hopefully mitigate the situation now. For example, Fast Company magazine recently featured two articles focused on the challenges and subsequent strategies key companies employed in February and March. The articles delve into what happened at both General Mills and Clorox.

As an executive at General Mills explains, the root of the problem for food items was the population kept consuming the usual number of calories, but suddenly it was all for food-at-home in a system that was geared for about half those calories and meals to be eaten out. The article explains how that sudden shift created a nightmarish mix of both shortages and gluts, with few ways to create a new balance.

Needless to say, the article about Clorox focuses on how that company coped with the sudden staggering desire for products that simply could not be produced quickly enough or in sufficient quantities. Both stories are compelling reads.

But there’s one problem. Even if every consumer read those articles and understood the limitations in the supply chain, it likely wouldn’t impact behaviors enough to avert what is likely coming.

That means the challenge you all face is how to mitigate the storm as best as possible. There is no magic bullet here, but at least now we all have some experience to relay on.

Inside companies, and certainly in partnership with trading partners, you need to examine how best to approach the coming month recognizing supply chain realities. And then communicate everything to shoppers. That starts with creating sensible limits on the purchases of key items, but it goes well beyond. Think of an article that appeared here on MNB yesterday about stores instituting timed reservations to limit crowd size in stores.

It’s also time to use your website to feature articles helping shoppers learn what products can be substituted for those that might be in short supply. Feature recipes that can be created from widely available products to help shoppers create their own strategies.  Want some inspiration?   Check out this New York Times piece about how the Barefoot Contessa herself is creating quarantine recipes.

So many stores (and certainly employees) performed magnificently at the start of the pandemic to help shoppers through a stunning situation. But the same pandemic fatigue that is hampering health care efforts is likely to explode in the aisles of your store. (Heck, we even see it in the e-mails here at MNB.)

Let’s remember that forewarned means forearmed. Consider yourself warned.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com.

His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.