Supply Chain Crisis! We’ve Run Out Of Lettuce!

Another supply chain story hits the headlines and to be honest we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Here at the HQ of Spend Matters Europe, as well as the gold-plated elevators and our gorgeous PAs in high heels and short skirts (and that’s just the young men), we have a vegetable garden that in most years produces potatoes, broad, runner and purple French beans, leeks, courgettes, kale, spinach and broccoli. And a decent crop of raspberries and blueberries, plus two plum trees that basically keep the birds and wasps sustained though the summer. (We’ve given up over the years on peas, cabbage, onions, and carrots for a range of reasons).

So unlike most of the UK population, we have some sense of what is actually seasonal in terms of fruit and vegetables.  Hence the combination of amusement and annoyance about the latest British crisis – the lack of iceberg lettuce and courgettes in supermarkets because of poor weather in the Spanish Mediterranean growing area, where much of our supermarket produce come from this time of the year.

Supposedly, there is a black market emerging, with people selling iceberg lettuce at £4 a unit – 8 times normal price. But there is a simple answer to this “crisis”. Just buy stuff that is in season here in the UK – various types of cabbage, kale, certain broccoli varieties, leeks, carrots, spring greens …

But no, there is panic and talk of flying produce in from the USA and further afield. We have lost the sense of seasonality and expect that every day and any day we can buy those items that used to be real treats at certain times of the year. I remember when the first strawberries of the season, or indeed the first of my grandfather’s potatoes from the allotment, were a real treat and marked a particular point in the calendar. But now we expect everything to be available all the time.

We also suspect that most consumers don’t keep track of prices. We do – probably because of our procurement and vegetable growing interests. So what seems odd is that broccoli (the calabrese variety) has been incredibly cheap this winter – just £1.15 a kilo even in Waitrose! So less than 20p for a portion. A picture in the Telegraph last week suggested it is now going for £5 a kilo, although if that is Borough Market then everything there is always twice the usual price ...

But did people notice that broccoli bargain – or that leeks even though in season have been significantly more expensive? Or how the price of courgettes varies hugely during any year? Or do consumers just have a regular shopping list  and put the same products in their (real or virtual) basket every time, independent of price?

However, we do understand that the position is more difficult for “corporate” buyers and whilst it is easy to say that households should just shift their purchases, it is not as easy for business. If you produce a fresh broccoli soup for the supermarkets or a chain of restaurants, it is not so simple to just stick in a bit of cabbage instead! Smaller restaurants can reflect availability of course, so this is more of a problem for the big chains.

So we will be back with some thoughts on how procurement can address this sort of risk – we can’t eliminate the risk, or the consequences, but there may be things procurement can do to mitigate the situation. And the lessons from that actually apply well beyond the “fresh vegetable” spend category.

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