Is COVID-19 triggering a seminal moment for the food and drink industry?


What a difference a month makes. At the end of February, the sense of optimism around the trade was palpable and you could feel it in many different ways. There was a little spring in the step of marketing and commercial directors, a lot of brands were looking to expand either through onshoring, co-packing or investment in their own sites, The UK winter floods had started to take the shine off the positive feeling, but the feel good vibe was still around in places throughout the second half of February.

But COVID19 has cast a shadow over the trade, disrupting supply chains, raw material flows, networking events and created unpredictable buying patterns for key domestic items. I really feel for the event organisers trying to keep shows like Food & Drink Expo, the Allergy Show and the Free From Expo on the road after the virus has decimated the conference and trade show circuit globally.

washing hands stay safe from coronavirus

However, in the midst of this current crisis, one of the clear changes that I see is the rise of virtual meetings – this month feels like a watershed for remote working. Here at HRA HQ last autumn went all in last year with new hardware and software to give us a platform to step change how we work remotely. Whilst I am a huge advocate of collaborative, flexible working I really didn’t think that this ‘tipping point’ of adopting this technology would be reached so quickly by the trade.

With movement restrictions seeming likely in one shape or another and with the economy slowing down, remote working is the way forward. But this mass adoption has happened without the progress on rural broadband, working from home guidelines or the implications for individuals being thought through fully.

Digital transformation has been seen as a bit passé in certain quarters, but that’s wrong. Take the impact on market research, we absolutely love the opportunities that digital transformation offers us for delivering greater speed, larger sample sizes, wider geographic reaches, higher engagement with respondents and clients and more overall flexibility. But we are not zealots for the tech. We feel more traditional research methods have their place e.g the magic moments when shoppers sparking off each other, walking the sales floor with a respondent, analyzing how they interact with the merchandising fixture and tasting products for the first time. This can only be done face to face.

But in the current period we have worked up detailed contingency plans for a couple of projects – if we can’t run focus groups face to face for example, we’ll deploy a different digital method to meet the objectives.

In food and drink I’ve always felt that we’ve always been a little ‘old school’ compared to the ways other industries have evolved their ways of working. We’ve been happy to burn hydro-carbons to travel to a physical event, to meet people face-to-face and this has been almost our unthinking default, myself included.

Nothing wrong with that in the right context but certainly for this chapter in the trade, those old assumptions are being over turned. If we can use our digital tools to keep our projects moving, sustain our working relationships, ensure that customer insight still flows and support the robustness of our supply chains then we should.

Perhaps when all is said and done, one of the most enduring legacies of COVID19 will be that it was seen as the seminal moment when remote working and a wider digital transformation finally landed in the food and drink industry.

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