How will long-term social distancing measures affect the food industry?

01 May 2020, 10:23 AM
  • With lockdown restriction predicted to ease soon, retailers and food outlets prepare to adapt to new measures once again
How will long-term social distancing measures affect the food industry?

Whilst the UK’s lockdown measures are set to be reviewed on 7th May, it’s still uncertain when restrictions will be lifted. However, with many companies clearly eager to get back to business as usual, and some retail chains already opening their doors, the Government has already warned that it won’t be so straight forward.

The UK’s chief medical advisor, Professor Chris Witty, recently revealed that social distancing measures could last until the end of the calendar year, with further reports since then suggesting they could carry over into 2021. A vital measure to help curb the spread of the Coronavirus, it means the two-metre rule could become commonplace as businesses slowly open their doors. So what does this mean for the food and drinks industry in the future?

Expanding temporary measures
With current restrictions predicted to be eased to some degree in the near future, we’re likely to see certain food and drinks businesses reopening.

Where possible, many retailers such as delis and grocers have already put temporary measures in place that allow them to stay open, whether restricting the number of customers that enter the shop at any given time, or by only allowing collection of orders placed by phone and picked up from the doorway. These temporary measures may continue if social distancing is to remain in place, though perhaps retailers will consider additional measures such as providing more permanent signage and changing opening hours.

For restaurants, cafés and pubs that have remained closed since the lockdown came into effect, staying closed may no longer be a viable option if the business is to survive. Instead, long-term restrictions may mean reconsidering how they operate, such as offering new services like takeaway or delivery. Some outlets may also consider taking advantage of new services that have launched to help connect food outlets with local customers in order to begin operating again, even if only on a small scale.

Monitoring customer behaviour
Whilst retailers like The Norfolk Deli have successfully implemented social distancing measures in the shop to allow safe transactions, the ‘new norm’ means most orders are actually made online: “Our website is where we make our money now,” Mark Kacary, managing director of The Norfolk Deli, told us. “Our home delivery service offers the contents of the delicatessen, which means that over 95% of our business takes place online.”

But in these unprecedented times, what will happen when the lockdown is lifted is still relatively unknown. Whilst customer behaviour has shifted over the past few months and seen online sales skyrocket, people’s desire to have physical interactions with the people that run their local shops may spur them on to shop in-store again. In other cases, the comfort and ease of online shopping may take precedence.

“It all depends on what customer spend is like and how they want to spend it. If they want to visit shops, then because of the size of our shop, this will have an effect on us as we won’t be able to space people out in the way that a supermarket can. This means we’ll be relying to a degree that, owing to the demands of social distancing, many of our online customers will continue to shop online with us.”

The Norfolk Deli is also home to café, which Mark says will remain closed until sufficient guidance from the Government allows them to make an informed decision, a situation many food businesses are no doubt facing at the moment. As with many dining outlets, the question remains of whether the current business model of serving a minimum number of covers per day is enough to cover the costs of operation.

Seeking Government guidance
At the end of the day, businesses can only take on the Government advice to help make decisions about their own strategy. But with the fine food and drink sector having already shown determination and perseverance since the onset of the pandemic, many companies look set to adapt to new measures once again as they continue to brave the storm. And of course, whilst Governments and organisations around the world continue to monitor the pandemic, the safety of staff and customers will still remain a priority.

Helping to provide additional advice for retailers that are planning to reopen, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) recently released a set of guidance.

“Since the lockdown, many retailers have proved how shops can be run safely and effectively in line with the Government’s social distancing advice,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC. “This guidance is the product of retail’s incredible efforts to adapt to exceptional circumstances. The industry knows how to serve the public while protecting staff and customers alike. 

“Continued close collaboration with the Government, including public support for the steps retailers are taking and adequate notice to get supply chains up and running, will mean that retail businesses can start trading again slowly and safely, and customers can feel confident that they are safe to return to shops. We need to be ready, and as we start to prepare for the reopening of stores, it is likely that some virus control restrictions will continue to be necessary to limit transmission. The safety and wellbeing of every retailers’ staff and customers is a top priority.”

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