London: Britain’s supermarkets are hoping common courtesy can help them avoid free-for-alls in the fresh fruit and vegetable aisles.
Moves by Tesco, Asda, Aldi and Morrisons to limit purchases of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers last week showed that the grocers are willing to invoke the spirit of the pandemic and ration goods if necessary to protect supplies.
Grocers want to be as fair as possible to make sure there’s availability for all their customers. Rationing is a tried-and-tested method, whether during wartime, lockdowns or more recent cases such as a bout of bird flu that led to restrictions on eggs last year.
Still, restrictions are difficult to enforce and often serve more as a guide to shoppers than a binding rule.
“Most retailers will want to avoid unpleasant conversations and will rely on people’s goodwill,” according to Jonathan Reynolds, academic director of the Oxford Institute of Retail Management.
The shortages of salad items are caused by cold weather in Spain and north Africa that led to poor harvests. While other parts of Europe are also reporting some gaps on shelves, the UK has been worst-hit, triggering a debate on whether Brexit is exacerbating the problem. Britain’s highly competitive retail market also means some producers prioritize other countries where they can get a higher price.
Shoppers are more likely to respect rationing if it’s consistent across the board, said Reynolds. Currently Tesco, Aldi and Asda limit purchases to three units per person while Morrisons has a cap of two. Asda has gone the furthest with restrictions across tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, salad bags, broccoli, cauliflower and raspberries.
Yet J Sainsbury, Lidl, Marks & Spencer Group, Waitrose and others are resisting any quotas.
Part of the challenge for grocers is managing the knock-on effect from shortages in wholesale markets, which drives restaurants and green grocers to buy from supermarkets rather than their usual suppliers.
“When supermarkets open in the early hours of the morning, traders come in and grab armfuls and whisk them off to their businesses,” former Sainsbury boss Justin King told the BBC this week. “That’s what these fair-purchase policies are there to stop.”
Limits are hard to police, however. A visit to a London grocery store by Bloomberg on Friday found that no caps were enforced when using a self-checkout to buy cucumbers and tomatoes. There’s also nothing to stop someone returning several times a day.
When shoppers are caught trying to break the rules, it’s often retail staff that bear the brunt of having to enforce discipline.
Hoarding came to the fore during the pandemic when locked-down consumers stocked up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, pasta and tinned foods. Stockpiling is less appealing for perishable goods like tomatoes, though the supermarkets aren’t taking any risks on ensuring fair supply across the UK.
Previously there have been instances of stockpiling being more common in the more affluent south of England compared with the north, according to Clive Black, an analyst at Shore Capital.
“The capability for a relatively small number of people to really knacker a supply chain shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Black. “If product wasn’t balanced out, markets can be skewed very quickly.”