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Brexit fatigue is giving way to contingency planning as tensions build over supply logistics, according to reports from a number of fine food businesses.
For indie retailers in the fine food sector, the question ‘to stockpile or not?’ is as divisive an issue as membership of the EU itself. “I have actually built a warehouse and filled it with months of grocery supply,” said Andreas Georghiou, who runs a premium greengrocers in Chelsea Green. “However, that will not help with our fresh fruit and veg.”
Others are taking similar measures. “We’re likely to stockpile at least on best sellers,” tweeted The Red Beetle, an e-tailer specialising in authentic Italian food. “It’s not ideal for cashflow, plus it’s always risky to have too much stock sitting there, but unless there’s an agreement and a plan before mid to late February, I have no other choice. I can’t have an empty store and need happy customers.”
Last month it emerged that Tesco has retained its extra provision of freezers, originally rented to increase capacity for Christmas, to stockpile extra frozen foods. The retailer’s contingency planning for Brexit will see the extra storage running for the rest of 2019, with chief executive Dave Lewis telling reporters Tesco is “working with our suppliers to think through sensible opportunities to improve stockholding closer to the market”. M&S has also revealed that stockpiling is part of its contingency planning; Iceland and Sainsbury’s are reportedly not holding extra stock.
Despite the arguments for making extra provision, some point to the economic difficulties of this shortterm strategy. “We will not be stockpiling,” said a spokesperson at Millars General Store, a wholefood shop in South London specialising in vegan food and drink. “With sales flat-lining and costs rising we wouldn’t have the money to do so. Or the space. It’s probably best for the shelves to have empty spaces as quick as possible; it would keep us on our toes regarding new routes to different produce earlier.”
Not everyone has been affected; traders in non-perishables may escape the worst of the stress. “This drama was easy to predict,” says Daniel Humphrey of whisky subscription retailer Summerton Club, “so we made sure two years ago that it didn’t matter. As alcohol doesn’t move freely in the EU currently, what happens in the long run doesn’t impact us as much as others, we are just talking to more non-EU suppliers now.”
For manufacturers, guaranteeing access to raw materials – especially perishable items that rely on frictionless transit across EU borders – is a real headache. “We’ve been stockpiling for sometime now and will be ordering more to store after last nights result,” said Adam Barlow, founder of indulgent snack brand Simply Trios, the day after the Government’s Withdrawal Bill was defeated. “We’ve run out of room in our own storage facility and will be having to rent our further space.”
Larger manufacturers are also taking steps; cereal bar brand Eat Natural is reportedly importing extra Belgian chocolate to ensure a steady supply but won’t be stockpiling for its made-to-order bars. Others are more fatalistic. “I refuse to waste time and energy on something so uncertain as the Brexit outcome,” says Kalina Halatcheva, founder of snack brand Nouri Health. “When it comes we will deal with it in the best way possible, but meanwhile it’s business as usual with so many other things to worry about.”
“I’m not stockpiling as the outlay is prohibitive and I can’t buy enough to make a difference,” says Northern Ireland-based confectioner Linda McGibbon, whose company Sea Sugar retails online. “Plus, there are more pressing issues. The island of Ireland is my main market and now Great Britain is considered export I’m being forced to rethink. Imagine not being able to trade with part of your country!” Others agree. “It’s business as usual,” says Sheffield baker Jane Stammers of Tipple Tails. “I can’t afford to stockpile enough to make a difference, and what will be will be. I’m more interested in the changing retail environment on our high streets, but don’t think anyone is paying much attention to that!”
The British Retail Consortium has previously pointed out the challenges of leaving the EU at the end of March, when British seasonal produce has yet to hit shelves and pre-Easter stocking will be at its height. “Except for early December, it’s hard to think of a more problematic time for Brexit to be scheduled for and this will only exacerbate the impact on our supply chains and British consumers,” blogged the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, Andrew Opie, back in October.
In the absence of a clear picture of how the next few months will pan out, many food and drink businesses are taking each days as it comes. “It’s business as usual for us,” says Sanjay Aggarwal of West Midlands’ spice blend maker Spice Kitchen. “There’s no point in worrying about Brexit when we have no idea what is happening. It feels a little like the Millenium bug for us!”
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