At least it’s not still January

In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea

It’s feast or famine with this industry. Either we’ve got too much stock and no one wants it, or builders are searching eBay for bags of plaster and brick deliveries are as rare as a solid summer holiday booking.

The three national lockdowns in the past 12 months have played havoc with the supply chain. The combination of furloughed or isolating staff and branch closures, then the gorgeous summer boosting builders and DIYer workloads, continuing staff shortages through illness (or isolation), reduced staff numbers at ports leading to delays. And then the Brexit delays and the closure of the ports. I live in Kent and saw the mayhem caused by the 20-mile tailbacks on the M20.

Whether you see a problem with a product shortage obviously depends on whether you need that product or not. Which means that merchants are pretty much guaranteed to be experiencing some shortages of some products at any given time,

Whether you need plaster, timber, roof tiles, paint, fixings, plastics, or white goods, chances are there will be stuff that you can’t get hold of, or that you are going to have to pay increased costs to get hold of. Shipping costs have reportedly gone through the roof, and then there’s Brexit.

One of the benefits of the global market, fuelled by technology, is that, with the inter-web, you have a whole world of shops at your fingertips. There are businesses here and in the EU that have grown up by expanding and finding ne markets overseas.

For a great many small businesses in the UK, selling to customers in the EU is no longer viable. Or, at least, not without a great deal of restructuring of prices and costs. Conversely, there are businesses in the EU that have decided they will no longer ship to customers in the UK because of the onerous paperwork and its resultant cost implications. Ok, so the headline stories are about DHL doorstep demands for tariffs to be paid before they’ll leave your parcel, artisan gin companies, fashion retailers, sporting goods and cheesemakers, but it also affects a great many companies in this industry too.

The Federation of Small Businesses says EU countries make up a major part of the customer base for more than a quarter of the UK’s 6m small businesses. Big companies can afford to absorb costs, smaller companies may not find it so easy.

This was always going to be an issue, but the shilly-shallying around over the past four years has meant that many businesses didn’t have sufficient notice to work out how exactly it would affect them. That’s despite the government’s advertising campaign throughout the latter part of 2020, warning businesses that things will change. By leaving it to the 11th hour – possibly so Boris could use that line about Brussels and the sprouts  – many businesses had no way work working out just what would change and planning for it. An example, a friend imports the most amazing jeans from Italy – affordable and flattering, the Holy Grail of jeans for her mostly middle-aged female customers. The cost of her latest shipment went up by a third. There’s only so many times she can afford to absorb that cost before having to pass it on to customers. At which point they may not be so affordable.

Boris has called these issue ‘teething problems’ and maybe he’s right. But you’ve only got to look at the problems with the effective border in the Irish Sea to realise that these teething problems won’t get sorted with Calpol and a cuddle.

I don’t know what the solution to any of this is, except to just hang on in there. Though the number of times I am having to write that is depressing. Still, there is good news out there. The numbers are coming down (covid cases); the numbers are going up (vaccine numbers) and there is evidence of snowdrops in my garden.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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