Becky Erwood is co-owner of FED, a prepared meal delivery startup. Becky provides a first-hand account about her experience and the reality for those retailers in COVID-19 "limbo" (essential or non-essential - depends who you are) and how the varying stages of our lockdown alerts created increased demand, a whole world of confusion and terrible economic consequences.
For many business owners and senior leaders, March may as well have been a year long. It certainly felt like it.
As co-owner of FED, a prepared meal delivery startup, the varying stages of our lockdown alerts created an increasing demand for our service.
First came ‘Stock Up Sunday’, when swathes of Kiwis hit NZ supermarkets to stock up on loo roll. On this same day was one of the biggest in our short history. People were clearly panicking and at first, I was one of those scratching my head and wondering why.
Slowly but consistently, orders increased as people looked to fill their freezers for the months ahead.
The mood was changing. As more people started to die in Italy and the USA, there was a growing sense that our lives were going to change, we just weren’t sure how.
Then came the move to alert level 3 and the announcement of level 4.
On entering level 3, the restaurants and bars were immediately closed and told to move to close their takeaway operations within the next 48 hours.
We were all told to stay home.
Businesses of all sizes and categories were given criteria by MBIE on whether or not their services were deemed to be essential.
Within less than 48 hours the thousands of food manufacturers, grocery stores, butchers, bakers, restaurants and cafes were to learn their fate and do their best to interpret it.
To say there were gaping holes in the criteria would be an understatement.
With food and healthcare considered to be the most fundamental essential services, as a food manufacturer we duly read the criteria and felt justly able to remain open.
A frenzy of demand
At the same time, our phone line and inbox started receiving an overwhelming number of enquiries and calls. As a small business owner, myself and Dave, a co-owner in the business were on the other end.
It gave us an unparalleled insight into the fear and anxiety of those unable to just head out to the supermarket.
There were retirement village owners trying to find a way to ensure their most vulnerable residents could stay fed. Front line healthcare workers and pharmacy workers now facing longer working hours and isolating themselves from their families needing a healthy and quick alternative to cooking.
The elderly for whom a trip to the supermarket was quite frankly a scary prospect. Unable to cook for themselves at the best of times, they needed our support.
People with disabled adult children who were now unable to visit them. One woman I spoke with was 80 years old, trying to organise meals for 100-year-old mother who she could no longer visit.
There were people with newborn babies – one who had recently lost her husband and had just returned home from hospital with her newborn baby who had been in intensive care.
Stranded tourists living in backpacker accommodation trying to maintain physical distancing from other tourists using shared kitchen facilities.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
We tripled our orders overnight. We knew that the people ordering were the people who needed our service more than ever.
The rug was pulled from under us
Then boom, it came. All prepared meals must stop. Unless your business supplied a supermarket, your business must stop operating.
So we closed. We refunded each and every order. We explained over and over again to people who thought it was a ridiculous decision in a time when people needed a service like ours now more than ever.
The prepared meal industry is still in its infancy in this country. We were a grey area and we knew it. So we reached out to one another. We collaborated where we might otherwise have competed. We worked together to help one another to reopen. Because we knew that there were people out there who needed our services now, more than ever.
The food industry is not unused to dealing with stringent health and safety plans. Anyone operating a business like ours will already be working with a strict MPI food control plan. Our systems and processes are already stringent. To put increased measures in place would be a simple process.
We kept scratching our heads over the fact that those producers who supplied supermarkets could continue to operate whilst those who had direct clients could not.
I spoke with one business owner who runs a similar operation to ours. He delivers directly to consumers and also supplies a supermarket. He was told he could continue his supermarket operation but not his direct to customer offer. The ridiculousness of it was not lost on us.
He was essentially being told to send his direct customers out to a public place to buy his meals but not offer home delivery. He was told he had to decrease production when increasing it would not have put his staff or the public at any greater risk. He was told that he was to sell more meals through a far less profitable stream.
Better contact tracing was one of the reasons given. Well anyone who has any idea of how a direct to consumer e-commerce retail channel works will know that our contact tracing is far more accurate than any supermarket channel. One faulty product and we would know exactly which customers had received it.
So we persisted.
We were batted back between MPI and MBIE – both of which were forced to reiterate the government guidelines. Mainly because it felt as though the essential services team were making it up as they went along.
An exemption was then granted. Meals on wheels were given permission to operate as was any business that supplied a DHB, ACC or MSD.
We contacted all of the DHB’s we could about our service while continuing to lobby to re-open.
Eventually came an email from MBIE. Given the agreement we had in place with a national chain of retirement villages we could continue to operate as a critical supplier but must operate within the parameters set. This meant no business with those not in essential services.
We wrote new safety guidelines for operating within a COVID-19 environment which incidentally went way further than those issued by MBIE.
And we explained to MBIE that insisting we only do business with other essential services showed a basic lack of understanding of how a business like ours operates. It is not possible to open our ordering system only to those in essential services only. To do so would require a complete reskin of our existing site and even then, wouldn’t be possible to police.
Once again, allowing us to increase production and service more people would not put our staff or customers at any greater risk. In fact, quite the opposite as it would keep more people out of supermarkets and take the strain off the red cross service.
We pleaded for them to lift the exemption and provide some official documentation to demonstrate that we were trading legally. We are still awaiting this.
The DHB, ACC, MSD exemption then disappeared. No explanation as to why it just disappeared from the website. It was back to essential services and meals on wheels only.
We put in place a discount for those working in frontline healthcare and we reached out to as many essential services we could. We spoke with our customers who we knew were working in essential services to give their colleagues information on the discount.
We continued to receive no responses to our communication. We have still received no further communication since the email giving us the approval to produce as a critical supplier to essential services.
SUPPORTING THE LOCKDOWN 100%
Let us be clear that we, along with all of the business community 100 per cent supports the lockdown to get this virus under control.
But at the end of it, we will be left with one heck of an economical mess to clear up with not one of us any the wiser about how we will trade when we come out the other end.
There has been limited consultation with the business community in how we can play our part in safely operating to service our communities and keep ourselves afloat during these tumultuous times.
Butchers, bakers, small independent grocery stores, direct to customer retailers – all of us have been at the mercy of the chosen few larger retailers that have been allowed to operate. The belief being that the smaller business community cannot be trusted to operate safely.
These smaller businesses will be the first to suffer. With overheads to pay and so much uncertainty around their future, many of them have days, not weeks or months left before their businesses go under.
I want to leave you with a punchy conclusion, but for once words fail me. Let us get out of this as soon as we possibly can and let us all hope that our ‘new normal’ enables the thousands of smaller business owners across New Zealand to find their way back into their businesses.
A note from RetailX
Please make sure you check out FED if you haven't already. We can confirm that the meals are incredibly fresh, tasty and handy to have when you are super busy and don't have the time to cook. Take that time and spend doing the things you want or send to someone who needs a hand. We LOVE them.