As the Coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc both on local but also on the global jobs market, leaving many unemployed, furloughed or working reduced hours as employers implemented sweeping cost-cutting measures and forced closures, I think most of us either working in or supplying to the grocery trade, felt blessed to have taken a career path that involved food and food retail writes CEO Barry Whelan…

The age-old adage ‘everybody eats’ really made sense as we saw businesses that had survived the last recession forced to close such as hair dressers and of course pubs and restaurants, while supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations remained open for business.

The resilience of the grocery trade to recession and economic shocks, even those created by a pandemic, is heartening for those of us who work in the industry and attractive to job seekers who want to join an industry that survived these most challenging times.

I myself think to resilience isn’t just driven by the fact that because people have to eat every day, we will always have customers because of this, but I believe the resilience comes from deeper factors that include how well run the grocery trade is and how competitive the market is.

Supply chain stressors

Firstly, a great example of how the grocery retail trade in Ireland is extremely well run, is when we look to the start of the pandemic and the panic buying that took place across the country. Each player in the industry, whether they are a multiple, discounter or symbol had to contend with this phenomenon, which came completely out of leftfield. Across the world, consumers really panicked, stripping stores of food and commodities, leaving empty toilet roll sections, pasta shelves and home baking isles. Later in the crisis, as the meat factories recorded outbreaks, freezers were filled with beef, lamb and pork. No buyer or planner or supermarket manager, no matter how much of a genius they are, could forecast what would be the next item to undergo a frenzied uplift, who knew the entire population of Ireland would don their aprons and go all Mary Berry on us!

Despite all this random frenzied buying, the supply chains held, the distribution centres ran, the trucks rolled and the store staff, management and of course suppliers worked tirelessly to restock shelves and alleviate the panic that had engulfed the Irish and indeed worldwide consumer.

Retail workers were propelled to front line employee status and thanked on billboards around the country and as the majority of the population sat at home growing out there hair and beards and probably drinking too much, we got to stay in normality, getting up each day and going to work, mostly with customers who appreciated that we had done so.

Online shopping

Competition in the trade had created diversification and some of our larger retailers had embraced online shopping. These retailers had to cope with unprecedented demand on this part of their business, using stores as distribution centres, with staff having to stock and then unstock the shelves themselves to fulfil ecommerce orders. Businesses prioritised at risk customers and got on top of demand as fast as possible, managing a complex and unprofitable part of their business to maximum effect, delivering needed groceries to those most affected by the pandemic. Retailers need to be commended for their efforts here both in food and non-food ecommerce, another great example of how well our retailers are run.

Never has there been a better time to shine a light on careers in food retail. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that food retail and those who supply into in, are resilient to economic shock, populated with extremely well-run businesses that are robust and can cope with change. This is truly a great industry to enjoy a career in.