Professor Andreas Holzapfel, Professor of Logistics Management at Hochschule Geisenheim University talks about ensuring the supply of food and respectful interaction with others when shopping.
Professor Holzapfel, together with your colleague Elisabeth Obermair and Professor Heinrich Kuhn at the Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, you recently published research focusing on the special challenges for food logistics in the retail trade during the peak periods before public holidays. Is the retail industry equipped to supply the population with food during the coronavirus pandemic?
Yes! The supply of food is guaranteed. It will just take some time until the shelves are restocked. This is because the retail sector could not have anticipated the huge surge in demand in a number of product categories and price segments, e.g. durum wheat products such as pasta, canned goods and hygiene items. This is what makes the current situation different to the run-up to public holidays. At Christmas and Easter, for example, retailers can draw on past experience and prepare accordingly.
During periods of normal demand, food logistics processes are finely tuned and adjusted to provide customers with a wide variety of products at all times and, above all, at acceptable prices. However, when short-term and extreme peaks in demand like those we are experiencing now occur, then it can take a while before suppliers can deliver highly sought-after products to supermarkets from their central or regional warehouses. What is more, a grocery retailer's goods distribution center only has a limited daily capacity for order picking, storage and retrieval, and transportation of goods. If there is increased demand, the restock orders from the stores have to wait in line and this requires patience. However, the products are generally available. Either the supplier has them in stock or they are already in the retail distribution center. There is no need to worry about shelves not being restocked.
What are currently the biggest challenges facing food logistics? What needs to be focused on most?
What we cannot allow is for individual supermarkets to be deprived of pasta products and hygiene items for weeks at a time, while others are oversupplied. This means especially that we must ensure that products for which there is huge demand are distributed fairly among individual stores, so that all regions and shops are supplied equally.
Central and regional retail distribution centers are crucial to the flow of goods to supermarkets and for this reason, have to be kept fully operational at all times. Consequently, extremely stringent hygiene and preventative measures are currently in place at the distribution centers. Scenarios whereby staff or even entire distribution centers can't work because of illness need to be simulated. In the context of pandemic plans, it should be established which distribution center can take over from another in the event of an emergency.
In some cases, goods are delivered to the supermarkets on Sundays, but this is not feasible everywhere, as staff must also be available to accept incoming deliveries at the stores. This may prove difficult as the pandemic spreads. While other sectors are applying for reduced working hours, the grocery trade has a short-term need for a bigger workforce. Agreements are already being concluded on the temporary deployment and/or leasing of logistics personnel from other sectors.
Moreover, the closure of restaurants in the evening will definitely mean more people eating at home. In addition, forecasts need to be made on what product categories or products are actually consumed more at home and what product categories or products are mainly stored but not consumed at home. We don't have any empirical data on this for the moment.
As well as that, supermarket staff are facing a lot of challenges, whether as a result of panic buying or aggression from impatient customers. This needs to be addressed adequately, without impinging on the patience and comprehension of other customers while they are shopping.
Are empty shelves a sign that products are in short supply?
As it just takes a certain amount of time before the shelves can be restocked, so in the current situation, empty shelves are not usually an indication of a long-term product shortage, but rather of an acute, short-term capacity shortage affecting production and logistics. Some shops receive deliveries only once a week. But if the daily demand for a product reaches the level otherwise seen over two weeks, then the shelf may only be stocked for half a day and empty on the other five days that the shop is open for business.
Should people nevertheless be prepared for shortages?
There may only be shortages of a small number of food products. However, these can usually be replaced by alternatives. There is no particular reason to stockpile amounts over and above the supply you would usually have at home anyway. Even with regard to critical products like disinfectants, I expect the situation to ease in the medium term.
What tips can you give customers on what they should do in this particular situation?
In this difficult situation, it is important to acknowledge that people working in the grocery trade and drugstores are currently providing an essential supply service for all of us. With this knowledge, there is no reason to stockpile products even if some things are temporarily unavailable. Keeping the required distance from supermarket staff and other customers is certainly also an important part of respectful interaction when shopping. Ideally, payment should also be by card in order to minimize the handling of cash.
Professor Holzapfel spoke to Tina Kissinger
For further information on Professor Holzapfel's research, department and Hochschule Geisenheim University's Food Chain Management (B.Sc.) degree program, please go to: