Working from home & the UK food system.

Dr Clive Black

July 8, 2020 1:25 pm
Working from home & the UK food system.

We are not totally through this terrible Coronavirus pandemic, indeed whilst the number of cases fall and fatalities, thankfully, ease, few if any think ‘we’ are out of the woods yet. As lockdown eases, to try and protect the economy, and households, it should be said, the risk of higher transmission could rise whilst some look to autumn with concern, when, seemingly, the wider air conditions – cooler and damper – maybe better for the virus to re-emerge.

And with the day in, day out now of the Coronavirus era, behaviours are evermore adjusting.  Whilst the power of the leftfield does not go away; who would have thought that breaking a local lockdown would be the mechanism to expose seemingly gross labour practices in the Leicester apparel industry? This leading to a key customer of sweat shops, Manchester based Boohoo, to have to issue defensive statements of its behaviours, and see its brand equity threatened and share price marked down?

Gradually changing daily routines…

Those collective behaviours are very simple in many ways but maybe having profound implications for the nature and extent of the British food system. Before now Coriolis have written of our concerns for the Food & Beverage (F&B) channel in the UK as a result of the Coronavirus crisis. Indeed, we have spoken of 20%+ contraction in industry capacity, evidenced by recent closures of stores in the Casual Dining segment in particular, e.g. Frankie & Benny’s at Arena Park in Coventry will no longer be the pit stop before a game by the Sky Blues should this dysfunctional club ever play in its home town again.

That reduced capacity can be expected to displace calorie volume to surviving F&B competitors plus the Retail channel too. Indeed, the shift in daily behaviour is a key factor behind the contraction of F&B. So, it is not just the recreational element of F&B that is under-pressure but also that which depends upon the commuter, the office worker, the business lunch and dinner. The key factor behind such pressure is working from home and the new addition to the daily acronyms, WFH; not to be confused with WTF…!


WFH is a powerful dynamic for the system

WFH has mushroomed through the lockdown. Business behaviour has been transformed through Microsoft Teams and Zoom, although whether totally secure or not remains to be seen, to the point that executives are thinking about how they do what they do, where they need to be to undertake their work effectively, and, most critically, the amount of time they have to spend commuting to no especial productive effect; in fact quite the contrary.

Coronavirus has been a period of greater decisiveness for business; things that could not change have gone. Ways that were traditional are no longer relevant and for many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, his means lesser or even no commuting in future. Marks & Spencer has labelled this present time, ‘never the same again’ in its own transformation programme.

“…online shopping has doubled in a little over three months….superstores and neighbourhood food providers, including butchers, have seen a major step up in trade; (and) with their confined stores and ranges, the march of the German discounters has also been impeded.”

The rise of the suburbs

What this all means though is a demonstrable shift in time away from the office, the urban centre with all their coffee shops, cafes and restaurants situated in close juxtaposition to railway stations and office blocks, to the suburbs. It is for this reason in lockdown that online shopping has doubled in a little over three months, that superstores and neighbourhood food providers, including butchers, have seen a major step up in trade; with their confined stores and ranges, the march of the German discounters has also been impeded. Indeed, looking at motor traffic, it is noticeable how much emptier urban centres are, how much busier suburbs have become.

Quite how matters pan out remains to be seen, but the shift to WFH appears to be the start of a semi-structural shift to which the food system will adjust. On the downside, WFH means greater pressure on the F&B segment plus the food-to-go and food-for-now components of the Retail channel in urban centres. For the neighbourhood cafes, restaurants and convenience stores, plus the supermarkets, it is an unexpected boon that is expected to stick in some form on an ongoing basis, even with economic recovery, lower than feared unemployment and challenges to domestic household expenditure; the latter of which still remain a key worry it should be said.

Arise domesitca

The term Coronavirus did not feature as part of our vocabulary at the turn of the year,( except for Dominic Cummings, of course), it had a profound impact upon our lives through the total lockdown. It is likely to have a more enduring influence thereafter, particularly through dramatic change to the British labour process, technology enabled, which is perhaps fundamentally conditioning the food system as billions of calories that were consumed in urban centres, travel hubs and business parks shift to your kitchen, living and dining rooms.


Dr Clive Black

Senior Advisor to Coriolis Consulting


July 2020

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