The Constant in a Changing World

I’m not sure when we’ll be able to look back and reflect objectively on this extraordinary period in our lives and in the history of the world, the country and our sector. Certainly now – ten weeks on from when Coronavirus truly hit our sector – is far too soon. But we can reflect on what we’ve learned in this time, and I think that times like this reveal more about who we are and the purpose we serve.

Firstly, what have we learned about the convenience store sector? We’ve pulled together some of the experiences of the past weeks in a report which reveals the incredible role you have played at this time. Convenience stores have been the constant while all around us has changed. You were there before anyone had heard of Covid, playing an essential role in your community, and now you’re doing the same but in a different way. You may have been responsible for some of the 600,000 deliveries a week from local shops to homes – particularly of the most vulnerable. You may have worked with formal or informal local volunteer groups. You may have worked with local suppliers to fill gaps in supply (there’s a whole other blog on that) and also to sustain businesses who may have previously relied on the hospitality sector for their trade. Everyone who has been open has played an extraordinary role that goes way beyond your business and community – you’ve been among the shining lights of the whole country’s response.

Secondly, what have recent months told us about this government? Nobody could argue that they tried, and that they’ve engaged with our sector in trying to tackle these extraordinary challenges - we’ve been on calls pretty much every day with one or more of DEFRA, BEIS, the Prime Minister himself, the CMA, Home Office and many other agencies. That’s to their credit, but between the UK’s four national administrations and local authorities, there’s been slow and inconsistent progress on helping employers drive testing, opacity and delay on measures to ease competition law, to extend driver hours, adapt licensing conditions and define and enforce essential retail, and a real mess on free school meals vouchers for children who are no longer in school. The crisis has certainly revealed a stretched public sector.

Thirdly, what can we forecast about the months ahead? I’m not the first to note that loosening restrictions on people’s activity will be harder that imposing those restrictions in the first place. There will of course be government rules, but consumers may not respond exactly as expected: who’s planning a family day in a big city with shopping, a meal out, maybe a film? No, I didn’t think so. It will take a long time for the experience economy of big non-food retail and hospitality to kick into gear. Similarly, how many families will be booking big foreign holidays against the backdrop of horror stories about stranded travellers around the world? It’s likely your local customers will be spending more time at home over the next few months.

Finally, the question that I’m starting to see debated more in our sector: which of the changes we’ve seen in recent months are going to turn into longer-term trends, features of the new normal (whatever that means and whenever that may be). Be wary of broadbrush prophecies on this. It’s going to be part of our work in the coming months to frame a debate on the future, and we’ll be asking for your views – insights from the shop floor are every bit as valuable as big data sets and clever consultants. The salient point in thinking about your future is that convenience stores are the ultimate hyper-local business with half of customers coming from within a quarter of a mile of the store; they respond to what you offer, not to what may be happening in the wider sector.

And this goes back to my point about your business as a constant among all of this change. Maybe we’ll play a similar role after this crisis to the one we play now – serving customers and communities, supporting our colleagues, innovating to get product where it’s most needed. Maybe that’s what we’ve really learned about our purpose as an industry.

This entry was posted by Chris on Mon, 18/05/2020 - 13:06