Covid Supply Chains disruptions: problems are real – panic is optional

Fear spreads panic. And panic spreads problems.

Panic on the streets of London.

Panic on the streets of Birmingham.

I wonder to myself,

Could life ever be sane again?

The Smiths, Panic (1986)

[This article was written before the countrywide lockdown operative from 3/10/2020]

Across northern parts of Italy, 16 million people are now affected by a lockdown. No movement in or out of Lombardy is allowed without special permission. That’s not going to stop people from trying (and succeeding). Just like it didn’t stop some people from grabbing their things and fleeing the area just before the blockade began. Most of them took their most important possessions, some of them took an invisible, infectious passenger with them. Fear spreads panic. And panic spreads problems.

Meanwhile in other parts of the world, like the UK and Australia, people have been rushing to the supermarket to panic-buy toilet paper, sometimes getting into fights over it (I think it’s called carta igienica in Italy). They’re also buying up all the pasta, tinned food and painkillers they can find. Who are these people? They sound like they have a very poor diet. Maybe that’s why they need all the toilet paper and painkillers.

Now wash your hands

They’ve also been panic-buying soap and antibacterial hand gel (gel mani antibatterico, I think). That stuff is in such short supply that it is being re-sold on marketplace platforms at very high prices. It’s crazy.

First, Covid-19 (which is what we’re calling it this month) is a virus. Viruses laugh in the face of antibacterial substances unless they have a very high alcohol content. Second, if you want to avoid catching the virus, you better hope everyone around you has clean hands too. You can wash your hands as much as you like and smother them in gel, but if other people are carrying the virus, you’re still at risk. Only now you are at risk with very sore hands because of all the washing and all the antibacterial gel you’ve been using. But like I said, fear spreads panic and panic spreads problems.

If you worry that one day there will be no toilet paper in the shops you might decide to buy some extra… just in case. If everyone does the same, suddenly there is no toilet paper in the shops and you think to yourself “I was right!” Sure you were. But you helped create the problem.

Adjust your expectations

According to the UK-based international parcel company, ParcelHero, online shopping orders are going to leap to 40% of all retail sales if Covid-19 continues to disrupt the UK. I think they are underestimating it. There are already signs that logistics networks are feeling the strain. Customers of Amazon’s Prime Now and Fresh services are not receiving their orders as quickly as they used to, and they’re not afraid to complain about it.

covid related supply chain problems are echoing through the sectorAmazon: A prime target for complaints

Not that long ago, same-day delivery was just an optimistic idea. But once premium services are available people adjust their expectations. Sometimes they do this without even realising. But the thing that was once a revolution soon becomes taken for granted.

Maybe that’s part of the problem too. Maybe retailers will have to get tough with shoppers and/or be very clear about disruptions to their supply chains. Maybe they already are – I haven’t been panic buying, so I wouldn’t know. But I do think everyone needs to accept that we have a choice – we can be part of the problem or part of the solution. All it takes is adjusting your attitude and behaviour.

Right from the time when ecommerce started to gain popularity with customers, there has been a tension between what customers want and what they are willing to pay for. That is partly because delivery was traditionally offered free as a way to attract customers. But delivery is a high-cost operation for retailers – giving it away is unsustainable.

Other things that are unsustainable include the expectation that you can have as much as you want without consequences (for you or for others), and that you will not be affected by circumstances beyond everyone’s control. There is a finite number of warehouses, vehicles, roads, drivers and so on. If everyone rushes at once to place an order, of course there will be delays. In some respects, it’s just like Black Friday, where shopper (and retailer) behaviour has changed across the last few years.

If you have read this far, thank you. If you are reading this in Italy my thoughts are with you – especially if you are personally affected by what is happening.

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