Remote-working growth yields food for thought for supply chain

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What opportunities and challenges does sustained growth in remote working present to FMCGs and retailers?

With economies in the throes of various stages of reopening, debate has begun surrounding when businesses dominated by white-collar workers bring their employees back into an office setting.

Even in states such as Texas where I am located, many companies (mine, for example) are taking a cautious, employee-led approach to returning employees to an office setting where the logistics in bringing people back together seem arduous and perhaps counterproductive to working efficiently – especially since many have adapted to working efficiently from home under the safer-at-home mandates.

In fact, many have found that remote-working experience to be liberating and are hesitant to give that up in exchange for returning to an office environment where even the strictest of operating procedures cannot assure them they will not bring home coronavirus. Hence, you have several companies who have given their employees the flexibility to work from home through the rest of this year, while others have made that flexibility permanent.

The momentum is for this trend to expand in the coming months, and with it comes important alterations to our relationship with food and mealtimes. Within that are key lessons for the supply chain that feeds us – fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), packaging and resin companies.

A commuter’s world

Much of how we prepare and market food has been shaped by the world of commuting to work five days a week. If that commute takes an hour each way, and you have an hour-long lunch break, that takes up 11 hours of a person’s day. We’ll give them eight hours of sleep (we’ll assume they’ll hold off on binging on Netflix until the weekend), and that leaves that person five hours in the day to bathe, run errands, take part in social activities (remember those?), exercise, etc. If they have children, then obviously there’s a need to water and nourish them as well. Oh, and somewhere in there that adult worker has to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Lunch may well be packed from home or come from one of the many restaurants or food businesses centred on the work lunchtime crowd, but at least it gets an hour of the person’s time. Breakfast and dinner would be lucky to get an hour of that worker’s time when added together. With just five hours surrounding that 11-hour commute-work-commute albatross to get an assortment of tasks done, saving time has been of the essence and why consumers have demanded and FMCGs and retailers have responded with meals and snacks tailored to speedy cooking and quick eating.

Finding time, finding change

The pandemic altered that paradigm abruptly for many workers, especially those in the white-collar sector. Forced to work from home, most found an extra two hours in their days with the loss of the commute. No longer was there a need to hurry around mealtime – there was ample time to prepare a dish built not on speed but on flavour, seasonal availability, recipes, etc. Two hours may not seem like a lot on paper, but that 40% increase in time spent not working or sleeping has brought sizable short-term changes to consumer behaviour that could well be long-term trends coming out the pandemic.

    • Bulk buying – Stocking up gained favour at the beginning of the pandemic in the panic-buying of staples and continued as shoppers tried to make fewer trips. One survey found that 52% were making fewer trips than before the pandemic and that 47% said that it was very likely they would continue that behaviour after the Covid-19 threat quelled. Bulk packaging requires less polymers but more cardboard, so it would be a challenge to resin producers and converters but an opportunity for FMCGs to more easily incorporate easier-to-source recycled cardboard.

 

    • Fresher – Consumers looking to cure boredom with something they actually were not restricted from rediscovered cooking and baking. But what may have been a boredom reliever also has borne out the additional time surrounding meal preparation that is available when working from home. A continuation in remote work flexibility portends to more use of fresher ingredients and less demand for frozen or precooked meals. That would be a continued boon for fresh food delivery and meal kits while an ongoing challenge to those restaurant industry participants dependent on office lunchtime business. It also would be a challenge to those FMCGs who deal in the ubiquitous “TV dinner” or microwavable meals.

 

  • Greater connectivity to brands – More time to savour foods also means more time to be critical about what we eat, and there has never been a time when consumers have so many instantaneous avenues within which to submit that feedback. Thus, consumers’ loyalty and loathing stands to become more visible and vocal going forward through not only sales data but also feedback on social media and directly to companies. FMCGs will need to be actively monitoring their reputation and working channels old and new to build and maintain trusted brand status.

The above changes may seem small on their own, but in total represent a seismic shift in consumer mindset amid the growth in remote-working. FMCGs, retailers and the packaging supply chain must adapt as well, and like the consumers they serve, they must do so in a climate that is struggling at best to recover from the economic and social damage wrought by Covid-19.

Not acclimating to the changed landscape is not an option. Those that reopen without reshaping are doomed to fail.

 

Disclaimer: The views in this blogpost should in no shape or form be taken as actual forecasts and are my personal views only.

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