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Coronavirus and The Corner Shop – A Portrait of Agility?

If ever one wanted the ultimate portrait of a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – the current crazy time through which we are living is it. The novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has turned virtually everything about the world on its head – including the market.

The UK government recently declared that all restaurants and pubs would be closed down as part of its efforts to contain the spread of the virus, which seems to move swiftly among people in high-density close-contact situations and is dangerous to older people and those with underlying medical conditions.

Of course, some Brits saw this as an opportunity for one last blow-out on the Friday night before the lockdown came into effect. Hundreds got together in crowded pubs and clubs, sweating, drinking and dancing.

You can just imagine the thinking. “C’mon, Karen. We may not get another chance like this for a while!”

No, Karen, we may not – largely because of idiots like you refusing to understand the impact of your one last night of shots and colourful cocktails.

This post, however, is not a rant about Karen and Ken dicking about on the last Friday night before a period of a government-enforced sobriety (at least in public).

This is, instead, about the alarming brittleness of large organisations in the face of an extinction event like COVID-19.

I’ve seen an interesting phenomenon in London over the last few weeks as shelves are empty in major supermarkets, denying lifelines to many vulnerable people.

Many of us have probably seen the photo below, which recently went viral after it was taken at our local Waitrose supermarket in Mill Hill, London and posted to social media. It’s a testament to the insanity of panic – of irrational stockpiling, worry, and fear. And it’s not just happening here – it’s all over the world as well. Places that have not known shortages of anything for decades.

An old lady stares at an empty shelf in Waitrose , Mill Hill, London. Thankfully the local community rallied around and made sure she had food and essentials. Credit: Facebook Group – Corona Care Challenge

No, hoarders aren’t usually encountered in developed countries under normal circumstances. No, no-one’s given any indication that supply lines are threatened and thus told these hysterics to stock up on bog roll or beans. These shortages are unnecessary, and are artificially created by people who are panicking rather than thinking.

But they point to something interesting. The big supermarket chains are suffering from what the Washington Post refers to as “bottlenecks in the supply chain as warehouse workers and truck drivers struggled to keep up with the sudden demand.”

And as products hit the shelves, customers are stripping them bare.

The uncertainty of the future across the globe has created such fear that everyone is now considering becoming a “prepper.” The conspiracy theorists and those preparing for a zombie apocalyptic landscape are now seen by some as sages in this madness.

No-one is safe.

Not even Karen, seven shots deep into her big spring blowout.

We are now all starting to stockpile tins and non-perishables and considering building a den in the woods.

How many tins of beans and soup do I need to survive until this all blows over?

We are constantly battling ourselves and the media about how to work with this so-called “new normal”.

One thing that I’ve noticed with interest amidst the closures of pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafes is the rise of the corner shop. And this is down to these shops’ superior responsiveness in terms of stock. A stalwart in the community, a small, privately owned corner shop may have less inventory and higher prices than a large grocery chain – but it can also be much more nimble in making decisions about where to get stock.

While big supermarkets are tied to their suppliers, little places aren’t. They can choose from multiple suppliers to meet customer demand. They can accommodate the demands of this unstable time in ways that the big supermarkets can’t.

Each corner shop manager I have spoken to has more skin in the game than any supermarket manager. Often, the people you see running a corner shop are its owners, so they’re motivated. They know they must adjust to market demand and be able to change how they source their products.

Someone who owns a corner shop can jump in a van and search for the nearest, cheapest or best products for their customers and in minutes be at a supplier who can provide them with 20 loaves of bread or 15 packs of spaghetti, or (the golden egg) 17 four-packs of Andrex.

While a Tesco Express manager is briefing staff on abusive behaviour and techniques for protecting themselves when customers get out of hand, demanding staples like teabags and bread, across the road an independent corner shop owner/manager is looking at what has been depleted and how he can source his next batch of products. He is talking to other shop keepers on WhatsApp and chatting via closed Facebook groups about which wholesalers and suppliers are worth travelling to.

Responsiveness is the strength these “little guys” have, individually and collectively.

Large organisations like chain supermarkets may buckle under the strain of a supply chain optimised for the exploitation of price point.

The small corner shop owner will continue to be a consistent, responsive and resilient force during this pandemic.

But as the entire system continues to get impacted (even the resilient truckers are not immune to COVID-19), the supply chain that feeds the wholesalers and ‘cash and carry’ suppliers are also getting impacted and will begin throttle the options available to the small store owner.

The challenges for us all in the coming weeks and months is to build resilience in the face of adversity.

Waste food piling up from panic buyers Credit: Daily Mail

The other side of the blind panic buying by hoarders is about lack of forethought for the storage of the food that has been stacked into trolleys alongside the many multi-packs of toilet roll.

Wheelie bins across the country are now being stacked full with food that is going to landfill instead of feeding families or vulnerable elderly people.

This tragic wastefulness is a symptom of the fear that has been propagated by the media and the uncertainty of the current world we are in.

But underlying it was the blind panic of potential chaos – which ultimately led to the empty shelves that are now commonplace.

To help tackle this, supermarkets are now returning to a wartime approach to reduce people from panic buying – limiting what people can buy.

At the moment, the UK supermarkets are restricting the purchase of any type of item to only three per customer (from tins and milk to biscuits and toilet roll).

On reflection, there is perhaps an important lesson to be taken here about agility and business in general.

Obviously, most organisations are neither large grocery chains nor corner shops – but all can learn from the nimble way in which the latter are using their agile natures to navigate the toughest possible times.

No-one in a high-VUCA world can afford to be slow or unable to change.

All organisations, large and small, should aim to be nimble.  To be able to respond to change. To be agile.

If your own organisation is tethered and lumbering, it may be caught off-guard in volatile times.  That can be transformed – by committing to the profound change required to adopt business agility at the heart of everything.

For more details on the latest guidance for Coronavirus (COVID-19) visit:

In the meantime, protect yourself and others – stay safe and stay home.