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How to prevent disruptions in food supply chains after COVID-19

By John G. Keogh, strategist, advisor, academic researcher, University of Reading



Almost all businesses involved in the food supply chain have experienced effects ranging from a mild shock to severe disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and further disruptions may be ahead during the second wave.

Yet not all organizations have learned critical lessons, and history shows us some companies are destined to remain unprepared for the next waves.

Many companies have taken decisive action to survive the pandemic and enhance their supply chain resilience. In doing so, they are protecting their interests and those of their business customers or consumers. We believe that successful firms are taking what’s known as a systems thinking approach to enhance food supply chain resilience.

In the systems engineering world, systems represent the interconnected complexity of ecosystems that are connected both internally and externally.

For example, a food production business is connected to numerous ecosystems internally and to those of their suppliers, business partners and customers.

Businesses have varying degrees of inter-dependence on infrastructure ecosystems outside of their direct control, such as the power grid, telecommunications and internet service providers. Other ecosystems include banking and insurance, logistics and technology providers and various levels of government that provide inspections, permits and approvals.

The cascading consequences of an outage, failure or cyberattack in any one of these interconnected ecosystems can be catastrophic for any food business.

Snowball to an avalanche

When a seemingly small disruption occurs within a company – such as a production line stoppage – the impact may be felt far and wide in the food supply chain. We can view a disruption like a tiny snowball that starts to roll down a mountain and may result in a catastrophic avalanche.

Disruptions can result from actions or decisions of individuals, departments or organizations. For example, in Canada, the government food safety inspectors union, citing health and safety concerns, refused to allow its members to enter meat-processing plants experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.

Like the aforementioned snowball, this decision contributed to a disruption – the plant’s closure – with complex, unintended and potentially devastating outcomes and far-reaching implications, including domestic beef supply and exports. The outbreaks in geographically concentrated meat-processing plants in Alberta resulted in approximately 75% of the Canadian beef supply going offline when three Albertan facilities closed temporarily.

That disruption sent ripples through food services and grocery businesses nationwide and resulted in consumer concerns about food security and increasing prices.

It’s been noted that Canada’s failure to invest in and adopt digitalization accounted for 85 per cent of the technology investment gap between the United States and Canada, and has contributed to Canada’s lagging productivity. When that lack of digitalization is coupled with poor interconnectivity among supply chain ecosystems, it results in food uncertainty concerns.

Food uncertainty is knowing we have enough food but without the visibility to know where it is in the supply chain. These concerns have led to calls for enhanced supply chain resilience through digitalization.

Avoid internal silos

To enhance food supply chain resilience during the pandemic, companies should be using systems thinking to consider the unique requirements of food supply subsystems (livestock, for example) and to prepare for potential systems shocks in these interconnected ecosystems.

We believe it’s vital to look through a systems lens to understand how future food chains should interact and how risk should be managed. This is particularly critical as we confront a second wave of COVID-19 and the threat of additional disruptions.

Many organizations have internal silos that barely communicate with other divisions or subsidiaries often dependent on their decisions or output. Using the metaphor of the snowball, without an adequate avalanche detection system, organizations are at a higher risk of a shock or significant disruption.

That’s mainly because timely, actionable information is not being captured and shared within and across organizations, and because no one has contemplated the potential cascading consequences of interconnected system failures.

Digitalization and systems thinking

Systems thinking can help organizations to visually map their business’s ecosystems landscape. Once this is done, they can examine or simulate where a failure or system shock may come from.

A business should assess its foundational requirements as it determines how to use technology to provide early warnings of potential disruptions.

When businesses apply advanced or predictive analytics tools, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, these tools can provide invaluable pre-alerts of potential disruptions before they happen, and allow for a course correction. This is akin to GPS warning a driver of an obstacle on the road ahead or traffic congestion with a suggested change of route.

In the figure below, we build on 2013 empirical research from logistics scholars John R. MacDonald of Michigan State University and Thomas M. Corsi of the University of Maryland by visualizing these advanced warning systems that we call tripwires and circuit-breakers.

The circuit-breakers are analogous to the GPS providing a suggested change of route _ they help companies correct a disruption before it cascades out of control. For example, closing a food-processing plant for sanitization purposes to address an outbreak is a circuit-breaker intervention.

Advances in technology require organizations to continually adapt to new ideas, innovations and methodologies. There is no doubt that many businesses employ brilliant people and technologies, and they just work fine in everyday situations.

Unfortunately, we’re living in an unprecedented era of social and economic turmoil and must react accordingly with a strategic, holistic, agile systems view. For food chain resilience, that approach must include integrated early detection alerts and rapid course-correction capabilities.


This article was co-authored by Karen J. Hand, founder and president of Precision Strategic Solutions in Guelph, Ont., and Carl “CJ” Unis, systems engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.


Paper towel in short supply as people stay home, clean more



The head of Canada’s largest manufacturer of tissue products says he’s concerned about the industry’s supply of paper towel ahead of a potential second wave of COVID-19.

Kruger Products CEO Dino Bianco said demand for paper towel has soared as people stay at home and clean more frequently.

“Toilet paper was the highlight of the COVID stay-at-home mandates but now we’re seeing the big use of paper towels,” he said in an interview.

“COVID doesn’t make you go to the bathroom more, but it does make you clean more.”

Bianco said the industry’s paper towel inventory is “very tight” across North America, despite efforts to build up supply.

“Paper towel is the big watch out for us,” he added. “We’re trying to build our inventory but we’re very tight.”

Kruger, which makes SpongeTowels paper towels, isn’t the only tissue manufacturer seeing continued strong paper towel sales.

Geraldine Huse, president of Procter & Gamble Canada, said demand for the company’s tissue products, including Charmin toilet paper and Bounty paper towels, increased significantly in mid-March.

But while toilet paper consumption has returned to normal levels, she said paper towel sales continue to outpace pre-COVID levels.

“Consumer demand for paper towels remains high across Canada as consumers are staying at home more and their cleaning and hygiene habits have increased,” Huse said in an emailed statement.

She said the company expects strong sales of cleaning products, including its paper towel, home cleaners and dishwashing liquid, to continue in the coming months and that P&G is “producing and shipping 24/7 to meet demands.”

Tim Baade, senior vice-president and general manager of Irving Consumer Products, agreed that demand for toilet paper has started to level off while paper towel usage remains strong.

“Demand for our towel has remained high,” he said in an emailed statement. “Bath demand is still up from pre-COVID-19 levels, but lower than its peak earlier this year.”

Baade said the company, which makes Royale paper towel and other brands under store “house brands” and private labels, continues to maximize its production to help mitigate any supply gaps.

Meanwhile, Kruger is pushing to open its new plant in Sherbrooke, Que., to add more capacity in Canada, Bianco said.

Initially slated to open in February 2021, he said the company is trying to get the factory up and running faster. Some machines started over the summer, while more are set to come online next month.

Bianco said the plant will increase the company’s paper towel and toilet paper manufacturing capacity by 20 per cent.

For now, Kruger has cut back on its stock keeping units _ or SKUs _ to maximize its production of key products.

At the height of the pandemic, the company slashed the number of products it makes in half to about 90, down from 180 key products. The company is back up to about 110 items, Bianco said.

There will be plenty of the company’s Cashmere brand toilet paper, for example, but the recycled sub-brand EnviroCare will be harder to come by.

That’s in part because it’s less popular, he said, but also because of issues with the supply of the raw product _ recycled paper.

“We use recycled paper that comes from white paper used in offices,” Bianco said. “That market has dried up because people aren’t in offices printing, so it’s hard to get the recycled fibers used to produced recycled tissue.”

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Supply and demand: A conversation with Dan Elrod of Wallace & Carey

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Dan Elrod ©CU Photography

Dan Elrod is president of Wallace & Carey, a leading logistics and supply chain solution to the convenience industry Canada. The family-owned business started in Calgary in 1921 with one truck and eight staff—today it has touchpoints coast to coast to coast, stocking more than 12,000 products in 10 modern distribution centres, a fleet of more than 140 trucks and 700 staff. With more than 1,000 deliveries a day, and millions of items each year, the company is an integral part of the supply-chain network for convenience retailers, which represent about 80% of the company’s business.

Elrod, who hails from Texas, retired from distribution giant McLane in 2017 and in 2018 moved to Calgary to join Wallace & Carey.

CSNC editor Michelle Warren spoke with Elrod about challenges, changes and fresh opportunities. 

What brought you to Canada? DE: One of my key decision points on deciding to join this company was, ‘Do we have competent, skilled professionals in the key areas of the business?’ That’s in purchasing and in operations, that is sales and marketing—the answer was very much so yes, in every area. I thought that I could be of benefit to the business after looking at what their opportunities and needs were, and decided to give it a shot. 

What’s the first thing you noticed about the Canadian convenience industry? DE: There has been some consolidation occurring through acquisitions, where some larger groups are bringing on or taking over some smaller regional and local players. I would say the independent convenience store retailer is very much fragmented, including sourcing, which is an inefficient process for those retailers.

 How are you addressing this? DE: Wallace & Carey began an initiative last year, to increase our retail store base by a net 300, over a 12-month period, and we achieved that goal. Success with independents is getting their order to them with the products that they need at the right time at a good price. You have to have a sales force that is actually making physical calls into retail, and talking to those customers, and developing the relationship so they trust we know what’s going on, what’s available in the market, what the trends are, the new products—things that a large chain is going to hear immediately from the manufacturer. The independents don’t have that luxury: Bringing those offers, options, deals and promos directly to them on an ongoing basis, is a huge added value proposition.

 Tell us about some core initiatives. DE: We’ve taken a number of steps to improve our performance. Wholesale distribution, if you run extremely well, you hope to achieve maybe 5% gross margins and maybe 1% pre-tax operating profit. It’s tight, so what do you do? If you raise your price to your customers, then you’re not competitive. Instead, you become more efficient in what you buy and how you manage it. We have focused on improving our value added services to our suppliers so we have more productive relationships with them. The other side is being a very good service provider. To a convenience store that means you show up on time with the products that they ordered. That’s your service levels, your fill rates. We’ve always been good at that, but it’s cost us money to be good at that because of some inefficiencies.

How did you turn this around? DE: We’ve become more efficient in our inventory management. We’ve also become much more efficient in our operating costs and routing. That’s essentially asking if we are matching labour expense to the volume of work that we’re doing on a minute-by-minute basis: Literally, it is minute by minute. For instance, now we create a route that’s got 10 specific stores on it and each one can be delivered to within a two-hour ETA. Really, blocking and tackling operational execution, running things efficiently, finding areas of waste or inefficiency, and solving for those, is where a distributor can make a material difference. Everything has to be measured against a standard: Is it contributing positively to the bottom line or is it not? We have focused and grown in areas that were positive and productive to our business.

You’ve added cannabis distribution to the mix: How did that come about?

CannabisDE: Timing is everything. I joined officially in September of 2018, and cannabis became legal in Canada in October. However, Canada did what countries always do with initiative like this, they forgot about the supply chain. All of the regulations are around what a manufacturer-producer can do, and about what a retailer can do, but what happens in the middle? What we quickly found was that our expertise handling, managing and shipping, high value, highly regulated product was very well developed, because of what we do with cigarettes and tobacco. We developed a very extensive set of best practices and procedures, specific to that product—this is what you need to manage, and secure, and protect, and stay within the laws and guidelines of getting your product from point A to point B.

What is your role now? DE: The key point is we do not buy, own, we don’t even warehouse cannabis. Our involvement is in transporting. We essentially saw a market need, and the solution fit our business model well. We’re venturing into areas and situations where it makes sense, but it’s by no means our core business—that continues to be convenience and that’s where we invest our capital resources, in our infrastructure and systems growth and development of our core business and core competencies. That is convenience store wholesale distribution.

Do you see any links between the future of cannabis and convenience? Might there be opportunities, down the road, to marry these businesses? DE: What I hear is, ultimately, most in the industry believes that they will be selling cannabis in some form eventually, and that’s from the largest chains to the smallest store. You put your regulations around it, and then you make it available to the public. You don’t tell them where they have to go to buy it. 

 One more COVID-19-related question: As the economy reopens, what can the industry learn from and build on to succeed in the coming months? DE: As with most Canadian businesses and elsewhere, Wallace & Carey took immediate steps to protect our teammates and customers, through implementation of improved health and safety protocols. Deemed an essential business, we have continued to operate in support of the needs of our customers and all Canadians…. Wallace & Carey, and our industry as a whole, has learned unexpected disruptions require us to be nimble and efficient, in all areas of the business, at all times. New traffic patterns within our customers’ businesses, changing demand from consumers, a workforce with high expectations for improved health and safety measures, and any number of other variables challenge us to be flexible, adaptable, and open to change that is certainly with us and here to stay.


Why empty shelves don’t mean we’re out of food: How Canada’s supply chain works



Shoppers are facing empty shelves at some stores due to unprecedented demand for food and other goods even as grocers assure Canadians coping with the COVID-19 outbreak that plenty of new items are on the way and manufacturers say they have the raw materials they need.

Temporary shortages are to be expected in spite of a supply chain working in overdrive, experts say, because the system isn’t built to predict extreme, large-scale changes in buyer behaviour.

Shoppers stockpile for a number of reasons, said Mike von Massow, an associate professor at The University of Guelph. Some fear stores may close amid the pandemic. Others buy in bulk with the goal of shopping less frequently to avoid unnecessary exposure.

That means right now, “we are seeing demand-based shortages, not supply-based shortages,” he said.

Shelves keep getting restocked with goods still flowing to the stores. Limited hours have been introduced in part to allow time to unpack and display replacement products.

Canada tends to operate with what’s knows as a “just-in-time food system,” von Massow said. That means grocers and other stores tend to receive food products just before they are ready to put them in the store.

It’s more cost effective for companies than keeping a large surplus that takes up unnecessary space. Some food, like fresh fruits and vegetables, can spoil. Rotten food that can’t be sold brings up the cost of the product for customers.

For non-perishable items, like toilet paper or canned black beans, too much so-called buffer inventory ties up money otherwise available for other things and requires storage space, he said. “By minimizing inventory, we keep prices lower in the store.”

Companies determine the exact amount of inventory to order and keep through “a bit of a science and also a bit of an art,” said von Massow, who worked for about two decades in the industry during which time he helped with forecasting.

Data helps companies make predictions. They’ll look at historical and recent sales, special events (the Superbowl, for example, may boost demand for avocado as football fans make guacamole for the big game), what influencers are saying about the product and more, said von Massow.

Increasingly, computers crunch the data and make suggestions. A human then looks at these figures and determines if they need to be adjusted up or down.

“The numbers can help you make a decision. They can’t make the decision for you,” von Massow said he teaches his students during a class about forecasting.

Both manufacturers and grocers will forecast demand, and the level of collaboration and information they share can help make their guesses much more accurate.

This model doesn’t work as well during an unexpected and widespread change in shopper behaviour. As the COVID-19 crisis took hold, Canadians purchased toilet paper, cleaning products and other items in droves. Photos of empty store shelves circulated online, further feeding the buying frenzy.

Canada’s major grocers have worked to reassure customers there’s no food shortage on the horizon as they work with suppliers to keep delivering essentials into their stores and catch up to the demand.

About three-quarters of members of Food & Consumer Products of Canada, a national association for manufacturers, say they’re confident in raw materials supply for two to five months or more, if current trends continue, according to a recent survey of the association’s members.

A fifth projected no issues at any time, even with current trends, while just five per cent foresaw possible supply issues within one month.

This data supports evidence of a demand-based shortage.

If it were a supply-based shortage, von Massow said, shelves would remain empty because manufacturers can’t produce the products or farmers can’t grow or raise the food.

For example, if a disease wiped out 90 per cent of the country’s chicken population, it would be next to impossible to find fresh eggs.

The lag in seeing some products reappear on shelves – such as flour or antibacterial wipes – in this case comes from the supply chain catching up to the spike in demand.

The level of collaboration and integration across a supply chain is another important factor, said Giovani Caetano da Silveira, a professor of operations and supply chain management at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business.

A classical, textbook example of a supply chain includes at least four players, he said – not only the manufacturer and store where the product is sold, but also distributors and wholesalers.

They could share all kinds of information, such as inventory levels, promotional plans and what markets they may want to serve in the future, he said. Major players may manage multiple parts of the supply chain and be more integrated.

Companies with well-integrated supply chains “can react more quickly … to sudden changes in demand,” he said.

But extreme changes in demand, such as what companies experienced recently with COVID-19 panic buying, are nearly impossible to anticipate, he said.

He noted Canada’s grocery chains seem to have responded well despite the unpredictable spike. That may be explained by the number of companies with collaborative, integrated supply chains that were able to respond to the unanticipated demand quickly, as well as a strong, capable logistics network to move the product from the manufacturer to the stores.

“There appears to be quite a good logistics capability here in Canada, in this case,” he said, particularly for grocery stores and consumer products. “So that also might be an explanation.”




Retailers prepare for coronavirus stockpiling

Disinfectants, bottled water and canned goods are flying off shelves and Nielsen says this will likely shift to shelf-stable and frozen foods, too



Retailers are bracing for a run on staples like water and canned goods as consumer fears about the coronavirus continue to escalate, with Nielsen predicting it will have an “almost immediate” effect on supply chains for the most sought-after items.

Nielsen said in a report that efforts to build so-called “pandemic pantries” have been particularly pronounced in China, the U.S. and Italy. Stocks of face masks and hand sanitizers have already dried up in some markets, it said.

There has also been a spillover effect on other grocery items. In the U.S., dollar sales of oat milk have increased by more than 300% as fears about the coronavirus took hold, and there have also been double-digit sales increases for fruit snacks, pet medicine, dried beans and energy beverages.

Nielsen said there’s “little doubt” that buying will shift toward shelf-stable and frozen options as consumers assess what items can be kept for long periods. Frozen fruit sales in the U.S., for example, were up 7% for the week ended Feb. 22.

Stories also continue to emerge about grocers placing limits on certain items to prevent shelves from being cleared. The U.S. chain Kroger, for example, has limited sales of sanitization, cold and flu-related products to five per order. Major Canadian grocers including Costco declined to comment for this story, with a company spokesperson saying only: “As always, our focus is to have merchandise available for our members at low warehouse prices.”

In an email to CSNC sister publication Canadian Grocer, Andrew Fuchs of Food & Consumer Products of Canada, said there are clearly areas in which consumer demand continues to increase, including non-perishables and household products, and manufacturers are responding to address the surge in demand and to ensure inventory levels can handle any additional demand moving forward.

“The difficulties are in the variables,” said Fuchs. “That’s why it’s so critical for retail and supply to be working hand in hand through this period since retail is at the front lines of customer demand, they are our eyes and ears.”

Nielsen also expects to see an increase in categories adjacent to health items like face masks and hand sanitizer, such as aerosol disinfectants. It also expects an increase in sales of hand lotions and body lotion, since the increased emphasis on hand washing and disinfecting will negatively impact people’s skin.

Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, said about one-quarter of Canadian households currently have sufficient food supplies to last for three to four days regardless of a coronavirus outbreak, but predicted more than 10% of households would look to stockpile important items.

Charlebois said “panic buying” by consumers has the potential to negatively impact supply chains, noting that the introduction of cost-cutting measures such as lean manufacturing, offshoring and outsourcing that have been put in place by companies in recent years could exacerbate the problem.

However, Charlebois said fears about a widespread supply chain crisis are misguided. “Most regions in Canada are serviced by retails [that] have emphasized investment in logistics and supply chains over the years,” he noted. “The prospect of some areas of the country running out of food is highly unlikely.” Remote regions are likely the most vulnerable, he said.

One of the areas where there could be a spillover effect is e-commerce, with Nielsen noting it expects to see an increase in online shopping if fears about the coronavirus do take hold. Meanwhile, a study conducted by research firm IMI on the impact of the coronavirus on people’s intentions found that 9% of Canadians—compared with 8% of Americans—are less likely to go to the grocery store in the next three months.

Online delivery service Inabuggy has seen an approximately 35% increase in the volume of orders over the past two weeks, with increases on items such as face masks, water and non-perishable items like canned tuna. “It sounds like a little bit of panic has set in, and people are ordering these products that they don’t normally order as much of,” says CEO Julian Gleizer.

Inabuggy has already suspended the purchase of items like hand sanitizers and face masks because they have become difficult to source, says Gleizer. “It makes no sense if a customer comes to Inabuggy and orders a box of face masks and they’re not available,” he says. “That’s not the experience we want to pass on to our customer.”

RELATED READ: Coronavirus and the rise of panic buying

Originally published by Canadian Grocer.