MAGGIE PAGANO: Coronavirus and the new normal for grocers

One of the many unexpected superstars of lockdown were supermarkets and their staff. 

From the first day the shutters came down in March, retail bosses moved swiftly into action to provide safe and efficient services in their stores and online. 

Workers were as much on the virus frontline as NHS staff, yet they were always cheerful and courteous, despite having to patrol their shops dressed up to the nines in visors, wash down trolleys, hand out sanitisers and deal with panicked shoppers desperate for the last loo roll. 

More choice: From the first day the shutters came down in March, retail bosses moved swiftly into action to provide safe and efficient services in their stores and online

More choice: From the first day the shutters came down in March, retail bosses moved swiftly into action to provide safe and efficient services in their stores and online

More choice: From the first day the shutters came down in March, retail bosses moved swiftly into action to provide safe and efficient services in their stores and online

It’s odd to remember how gloomy it all was. The UN warned of food shortages because of fears there would not be enough agricultural workers to pick the crops and that supply chains would buckle under the stress. Some academics demanded the Government bring in food rationing. 

Yet the supply chains didn’t break down. The industry got on with its job. Supermarkets switched back-office workers to the front floor. Some were put on queue control. 

Instead of running out of goods, manufacturers stepped up production. There were no real shortages. At the same time, retailers ranging from the big supermarkets to local farm shops were switching gear to accelerate their online home deliveries, vital for those shielding, hiring drivers and logistics staff. 

The thrill of being told by a local farm shop that I had finally ‘made’ the delivery list was a rare lockdown high. 

They have done so well with their delivery operations that shoppers have got the taste, and are unlikely to give up the habit any time soon. Research by Waitrose suggests the shift to online shopping is irreversible, and very strong among the over55s, three out of four of whom are shopping online for food. One in four of us shop for groceries online at least once a week, double the amount last year, and 74 per cent of us buy something online, up from 61 per cent last year. 

Supermarket bosses are genuinely staggered by how lockdown habits have stuck with us and have gone into overdrive to meet the demand. Asda, which reported record online sales over the period, has brought forward its eight-year plan for online deliveries of 1m a week to now. 

Waitrose added another 150 vans in June and is going national with its service, aiming for 250,000 deliveries a week. There is even an extra-fast two-hour service with shoppers paying £5 for 25 items or less which has tripled: souped up cooking at home really has taken off. 

Sainsbury’s has doubled its weekly slots to 650,000, and increased click and collect services in 181 more stores. Marks & Spencer is praying that struggling sales can be boosted by its tie-up with Ocado for home deliveries. The Co-op is also beefing up. 

There are many positive unintended consequences of changing habits: convenience for shoppers, vans being leased, more jobs for drivers and packers. But where does this leave supermarkets long-term? Will they too have to shrink floor space on an already troubled High Street? Who knows, but they have proved remarkably resilient and hopefully will adjust again to the new normal.

Virus-free Hambro

There is no stopping Peter Hambro. Fresh from being bloodied at Russian gold miner, Petropavlovsk, he is now working with schools to help them open up safely. His family company, Sundeala, has been supplying fibre boards to schools, universities and hospitals as screens and notice-boards for years. But with teachers so nervous about having a Covid-free environment, Sundeala has had the boards tested by a top immuno-diagnostics company. 

The results are good: the boards are 100 per cent virus free in less than five minutes after being infected. Sundeala, which made partitions for the first Nightingale Hospital, is working closely with teachers on how best to use the equipment to keep pupils within the social distancing rules. 

There is another plus: the products are made in the UK and recycled from egg-cartons and teabags. And newsprint. Now you know your copy of the Daily Mail has a useful after-life as well as being a great read.

Own goal 

Whoops. The Government is heading for another own goal over planned reforms to calculating the Retail Price Index to bring it in line with the lower Consumer Price Index. 

Making these reforms will cost pension savers £122billion, says the Association of British Insurers, and warns they would have to be compensated. As we saw from the school grading fiasco, ministers aren’t blessed with mathematical skills or indeed common sense. Oh dear. 

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