There was a moment in early March when it felt to Andrew Murphy as if Britain’s most reliably middle class supermarket might buckle under the strain of an unprecedented crisis.
As supply chains wobbled and thousands of workers were forced to self-isolate, the hordes of panic-buyers kept coming, fuelled by pictures of empty shelves and queues of shoppers snaking round packed car parks.
"We really did think we were within hours of literally not being able to get any more products into our warehouses from suppliers and send it out to our supermarkets," says Murphy, who is in charge of operations at Waitrose.
"The spike [in panic buying] was so profound and so rapid. You can't magic up vans and you can't magic up new warehouse space. There were about 10 days where it was just incredibly touch-and-go."
Although only a few months have passed since those early days of the pandemic, it is easy to forget the sense of terror in the aisles as Covid hit Britain.
What had previously been dismissed as essentially a Chinese problem — then an Italian one as it ripped through the towns of Lombardy — was shaking the country out of a decades-old sense of complacency.
Society itself seemed on the brink and, for the first time since the Second World War, millions of Britons began to fear they would be unable to get the basic necessities.
It was a test that supermarkets ultimately passed, but only after staring into the abyss.
"Colleagues in Tesco with 45 years of service in grocery, they will tell you that they’ve never ever seen anything like it, not even close," says Dave Lewis, chief executive of Tesco.
"The thing that we were most focused on was for how long would that sort of peak in demand last? It was very much 'take it day by day and do whatever we could to make things available'. But no, I didn’t ever think that we wouldn’t cope."
Disaster first struck about March 2. Toilet roll disappeared first , with an extra £17.6m spent that week compared with the year before in behaviour mirroring what had already happened on the Continent that sparked a rush of uneasy jokes.
Then frozen food, cans and jars started to run out and subsequently fresh meat as frantic families stocked up. Waitrose sold a year's worth of pasta in March.
Sales boomed at the likes of white goods seller AO World, which reported a 200pc surge in freezer sales during the week to March 9 as consumers rushed to secure more space for their emergency stash.
The danger was not that food itself might run out, simply that supermarkets could not get it on the shelves fast enough to match demand.
At the peak of the crisis, from March 16 to 19, households made 42m more shopping trips than usual. They each spent £62.92 more in the month as a whole, according to data firm Kantar. Stores were busier even than Christmas, a time for which grocers have all year to prepare.
If stores had run out completely, it was feared social order could break down. One analyst suggested the Army might be needed to protect food trucks.
"We have two very busy days at Christmas, but we have had all year to prepare for them," says Lewis, who was on the road visiting stores during the crisis. “We had seven to ten days that were like those two days, but with no time to prepare."
Murphy's team at Waitrose had to re-route some lorries directly to stores and bypass depots to fill the shelves quicker, disrupting a long-standing model where everything went through a central hub.
“Think of the fuel crisis," says one grocery executive. "There was more than enough fuel to go around, but customers started to behave in such a way that suggested there wasn’t and it became self-fulfilling. We were at the exact same point."
In the background, supermarkets were frantically assembling war cabinets. Not only did they have to deal with a surge in demand, but there were fears that thousands of staff could be struck down by Covid and unable to do their jobs. Firms put established plans into action.
A couple of the major grocers had been on high alert since January, when Wuhan became a hotbed for coronavirus in China. Executives began speaking to other retailers abroad, especially in Italy, which was among the first to be badly hit on the Continent. Other chains leaned on the expertise of their directors that had worked through the Sars epidemic to plan a response.
At Tesco, Lewis previously asked staff to react to a mock scenario assuming they lost the head office, which helped when lockdown was imposed. "We didn’t foresee this at all," he says. "But we did ask ourselves the question, could we run the company without the office?"
The smaller players had less time to prepare.
"We could see sales starting to take off on certain categories, which gave us an indication that people may panic buy if indeed a lockdown did happen," says Andy Perry, the supply chain and logistics director at Co-op. "There was no time to plan for it really, so it was almost 'how are we going to react now?'."
The retailer set up an “incident management team” straight away and hired 5,000 extra drivers, shelf stackers and warehouse workers in a week.
"We moved heaven and earth in a very short period of time," says Perry about the hiring spree.
He was not the only boss to take action. Tesco created 20,000 jobs and rivals such as Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl and Asda swiftly followed suit. Many of these were temporary workers laid off as normality returned, but they were crucial to keep stores going.
The usual sense of rivalry between chains disappeared too as fierce competition in one of the world’s most sophisticated grocery markets gave way to something else — a grim determination, in a phrase first uttered by Morrisons boss David Potts, to “feed the nation”.
The assault of the German discounters Aldi and Lidl on the market, with their ultra-low prices, has turned supermarket shopping on its head over the last decade. The incumbents have fought back with their own cheaper ranges but they are all vying for a shrinking pool of profits in a mature market where there is virtually no growth.
"We've had this cross-industry collaboration, which is bizarre," says Richard Walker, boss of frozen food chain Iceland. "Normally retailers want to wake up and kill each other, but we stood shoulder to shoulder."
All the major chains had daily calls with ministers and a weekly conversation with George Eustice, the Environment Secretary. The general consensus among them is that the Government listened and responded to their demands. "They were very available," one supermarket boss says.
One such example was the relaxation of competition laws, which in normal times stops the grocers communicating with each other or sharing resources and data of any sort as it could harm shoppers. Rules around night-time deliveries were eased to give them a chance to stock back up. They had the option to cooperate to keep shops open or share distribution depots and delivery vans.
Meanwhile, legions of staff were facing a tidal wave of scared and sometimes abusive customers, in stores with no screens or safety equipment.
Retail analyst Clive Black, of broker Shore Capital, says: "The supermarkets were real heroes in the eye of the coronavirus storm. You didn't find shop assistants playing silly b——.
“They turned up day in, day out to feed us with no [plastic] screens and no face masks. That bravery has been understated. Talk of [supermarkets] profiteering from the crisis is misplaced."
The Instagram account of Asda boss Roger Burnely is littered with photos and videos of him travelling the country to rally the troops. Walker, of Iceland, contacted McDonald’s to ask if he could use the supply of plastic gloves which their staff usually wore to handle food at now-closed restaurants. Another grocery boss has tales of running on adrenaline and only sleeping three hours a night for days in a row.
Lewis says: "The thing that concerned me the most was staff and stores because of the unprecedented demand, and the nervousness and fear of customers was very, very palpable. But all of my memories, I have colleagues doing quite incredible things to help the community and NHS workers. That sort of thing just sort of puts a lump in your throat really. I honestly don't say this because it's an interview."
One of the biggest hurdles was getting food boxes delivered to the 1.5m people the Government asked to “shield” because poor health made them particularly vulnerable to Covid. Ministers initially approached Sainsbury's to ask if it could take charge of the task to identify vulnerable people as it had its own robust database due to the Nectar loyalty scheme. The project became a joint effort between all the major grocers and wholesalers Bidfood and Brakes.
Firms such as Morrisons and Marks & Spencer set up businesses virtually overnight, selling food boxes with basic items for a set price for delivery to customers' homes, especially for those who could not leave the house.
There were also determined efforts to shore up supply. The grocers worked closely with manufacturers to simplify the ranges so that, for example, eight types of bread became two, pushing up production volumes and helping get items in stores more quickly.
"We were on daily, if not twice-daily conference calls with those suppliers," says Rupert Thomas, food and grocery director at Waitrose.
Another executive says: "I have never worked so hard in my life as I did those first five weeks. Talking to suppliers … it wasn’t daily, it wasn't hourly, it was every 10 minutes."
The chaos did not just hit bricks and mortar stores. A deluge of customers signed up for home delivery, transforming what had previously been a fairly niche part of the market and confounding predictions that most of the public would always prefer to buy food in a physical shop.
Before the pandemic, about 93pc of grocery shopping in the UK was still done in stores, so the capacity to ramp up food delivery many times over was limited. Online now has almost doubled and now accounts for about 13pc of the market.
Supermarkets rapidly ran out of delivery slots as the chaos struck, with no availability for weeks ahead.
Tim Steiner, the boss of online grocer Ocado, had to retool his website to cope with the number of new customers trying to sign up. "You've got to completely change how you run a business and you don't have time to think about it,” he says. “You don't have six months’ warning, it just hit us all almost overnight."
Iceland has also boosted its online offering. Walker says: "Initially [store staff] were delighted because it's more sales. But then days turned into weeks [of bulk buying] and it became exhausting. They were on their knees, there were empty shelves, it was shocking. They were dealing with this unparalleled panic buying."
Walker has been a vocal critic of consumer behaviour as the outbreak took hold, pointing out that largely only affluent people could afford to buy more of everything. Later data has indeed suggested that the middle classes in the south of England and shoppers in London had been hoarding the most goods.
What has also become apparent since, says Charlotte Scott, consumer insight director at Kantar, is that "everyone just did a bit more stocking up, there wasn't a lot of stockpiling". Families stuck at home had to cook more meals after the eat-out tap was turned off, so shoppers added a few extra items to their basket – but that was enough to stretch the system almost to a tipping point.
The UK spent a record £10.8bn on groceries in March alone – more than at Christmas. While staple cupboard items were in short supply, other ingredients flooded the market after restaurants, bars and pubs were forced to shut. It was the grocers' turn to help farmers out.
"There was a big demand for mince, which is more versatile as people were doing more cooking at home, but less for the premium cuts," says Co-op's Perry.
Suddenly farmers were in a place where they did not think they could afford to cull animals because they would lose cash.
"We did a lot of work with other retailers and ministers to take more premium cuts, promote them heavily to try to help suppliers," says Perry.
Kantar has estimated that an extra 503m meals a week, mainly lunches and snacks, were prepared and eaten at home during lockdown.
Over the years, supermarkets have moved towards so-called just-in-time supply chains to stay profitable. This means that a local branch will roughly know how much stock it needs every day based on what is sold and predicting customers’ behaviour.
It does not have a large stockroom as lorries deliver fresh food and other items daily. When people bought more than they typically do they derailed a tightly calibrated business model. Within weeks, however, the supply chains were almost back up to pre-coronavirus levels and availability recovered.
Perry, of the Co-op, says: "It’s absolutely not the end of the just-in-time [supply system] because to go back to where we were before would require massive capital investment in space and warehousing and ultimately, we would put the prices up. There’s no appetite to do that."
The pandemic derailed life as we knew it. But there is new understanding from both retailers and suppliers of what can be achieved in a time of national crisis.
As one executive puts it: "Because the food industry was there for the country, customers will have been given some confidence that they don't need to panic and can trust the system."
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