Why the Coronavirus-Battered Food Supply Chain Wins High Marks


It’s true that America has enough food and that much of it simply isn’t in the right place.

Its rightful position is in supermarket aisles and empty shelves are evidence that grocers haven’t been able to keep up with the bump in demand driven by panic buying as the number of coronavirus cases rises.

Those lean grocery store supply chain models have clearly been exposed as being on the wrong side of scant. Just-in-time retail isn’t living up to its name for a good number of staple food items and vendors are left playing serious catch-up with consumers’ expanded appetites.

Let’s also be clear that in no way is this business as usual.

It’s tempting to slam supply chain participants all the way from the farm to the front door for the current failures. But this pandemic is an unprecedented moment. It would be unfair to expect anyone to build such an event into their scenario planning.

Nor will you find it coded into stock-management algorithms.

Short-Term Shortages

The store shortages you’re seeing now are “a short-term disruption and not an indicator that the overall supply chain is not functioning,” according to Lowell RandelOpens a new window , a vice president at the Global Cold Chain Alliance, a trade group representing the refrigerated warehouse and delivery industry. Although the disruption is severe, there are signs that the reactions to it are precisely right.

Obviously, a large part of the problem revolves around ensuring that the shelves are supplied for shoppers. And many large store chains responded relatively quickly to that issue by reducing retail hours so that workers had more time to restock.

The stores also quite understandably shifted focus to reordering and replenishing those items customers were busy snapping up, with remaining inventory left to take care of itself.

Now there’s the need to have the workforce deal with this huge uptick in customer demand. While big stores normally have a backup labor pool to call on at busy times, the requirement now is of exceptional magnitude.

Amazon’s Prime Pantry online grocery, for instance, was hit by such high order volumes that it had to tell shoppers that the cupboards were bare. Its website bore the message: “Pantry is temporarily closed. We are busy restocking.”

Help-wanted calls

Amazon then promptly announced that it was looking to hire a whopping 100,000 additional warehouse and delivery workers, while it also said it was raising its pay for them by $2 an hour.

Other retailers are following suit on hiring binges. Walmart wants to bump up its workforce by 150,000 people, while 7-Eleven is on the lookout for 20,000 pairs of hands for its stores and Kroger for 10,000 across a variety of tasks.

Job creation is the order of the day further back in the supply chain, too, with the refrigerated warehousing giant Lineage Logistics, which handles nearly one-third of the country’s food, trawling for an additional 2,000 workers.

All in all, a lot of people power is required, so it makes sense that these companies are targetingOpens a new window the newly unemployed who have fallen victim to local shelter-in-place orders. Retail employees are quick and easy to train, while vast numbers of restaurant workers also will have the aptitude required for store work.

Mobilize that Food

The transportation side of things is a trickier proposition. While plenty of people can drive a light truck for last-mile delivery operations, the same is not true for interstate trucking.

So it’s essential to get the most out of existing fleets. That’s why regulatorsOpens a new window at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration last week eased the hourly driving restrictions for truckers moving emergency supplies of food to distribution centers and stores – as well as for other items such as soaps, sanitizers and medical supplies.

And there are two pieces of coronavirus good news for food transportation: Covid-19 has hugely reduced traffic congestion, with traffic flowing freely in America’s 25 largest metropolitan areas, according to InrixOpens a new window , the mobility data company.

Plus, it reports, travel speeds are faster on the country’s usually congested interstates and highways. That development will come just in time for both stores and shoppers.