Online sales growth will be a hard habit to break

Column 18-2-21 SM Farm

There is a hint of spring in the air – a stretch in the evenings and the first field work of 2021 now underway. I am sure it puts a spring in your step, and as tough as lockdown has been, it is a blessing for the farming community that your workplace is the great outdoors. I wish you all a healthy and successful farming year in the months ahead, and as always the weather will have a big say in that outcome!

We are all hoping for better times and the success of the vaccination programme is heartening. I am delighted Asda is playing its part, opening two vaccination centres in stores in England where we have a pharmacy presence. In fact, working alongside Government wherever we can has been a theme of the Covid-19 pandemic, with at its heart our role alongside farmers and food manufacturers in feeding the nation. When the pandemic is over, this will be one of the positive legacies of Covid-19.

With the foodservice sector still closed, consumers are buying extra in retail stores. The latest Kantar results show Asda sales growing by about nine per cent in the past year.

Interestingly, small stores have been the biggest beneficiaries, with sales growing by 26 per cent in the smaller independent chains. We have also seen phenomenal growth in online sales and no doubt consumers have learned new habits, which will become established – and will have a bearing on the market for your produce for years to come.

There is no getting away from Brexit either. Retailers have most certainly been using their ‘best endeavours’ to have everything in order to move goods from GB to NI.

The next milestone will be February 22, when goods on the Prohibited and Restricted List, for example fresh mince, will need a consignment level Export Health Certificate. For some retailers, like Asda, this is all completely new and it’s a very steep learning curve.

There will be new opportunities for sourcing goods from the island of Ireland, but I believe the most desirable outcome is finding ways to maintain a good flow of trade between these islands in all directions.

The standards and traceability in our supply chain are second to none and I have always held the view that workable and lasting solutions are possible, a Trusted Trader scheme for example to minimise bureaucracy remains an opportunity which should be seriously looked at.

Retailers are asking for two things: a significant extension to the grace period which ends on April 1; and a workable lasting solution which can maintain our Just In Time and complex supply chains.

Covid-19 and Brexit have stopped the clock on some issues as well. A year ago the debate about plant- based products and their impact on the livestock sector was very much on the agenda. That has cooled off.

In November, the UK will host COP 26, the UN Climate Change Conference. This really is a landmark event and will help shape global policy on food and land use. It is maybe not our immediate priority during lockdown, but as we move further into 2021 let’s have that discussion about how the industry can offer solutions to the biggest challenge of all, the climate emergency.

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