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A lesson in building retail resilience from a 40-year industry veteran

Date: December 17, 2020

Category: Industry news


Author: Tim Haidar

As part of our new interactive retail forum, we spoke to retail veteran Chris Tyas about the lessons learnt over the past nine months as the industry comes to terms with the impact of a global pandemic. 


GS1 UK hosted the first in its Powering Progress series of webinars two weeks ago, with guest Chris Tyas, chair of GS1 UK and head of the Food Resilience Industry Forum (FRIF), also known as the “Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) war room”.

Established in March, the war room was tasked with joining up Government and grocery businesses across the supply chain, to maintain availability of food and essentials during the first national lockdown. 

Immediate goals were to address issues brought about by the abrupt shutdown of the shops, and to plan ahead for potential pinch points in the future.

With 40 years of industry knowledge and having played an active role in the response to wide-scale problems like the horse-meat scandal, Tyas, the former VP of supply chain at Nestlé, was a natural choice to lead the FRIF.  

Trends and continuity

In the virtual fireside chat with GS1 UK’s content lead, Tim Haïdar, Tyas outlined four areas of concentration to build retail resilience: observing consumer trends, understanding how the industry has changed since the initial UK-wide lockdown, planning for future change and assessing the “human factor” that will underpin any new retail reality.

On consumer trends, Tyas underlined the rapid switch to in-home consumption and online grocery shopping, noting that the amount  spent on web sales and home delivery in a week had increased by 160 per cent since the onset of the crisis. 

In turn, this had led to smaller brands struggling to break through. “Recent information has shown that people are spending something like only 30­–40 per cent of the time on each shopping visit that they did prior to the COVID crisis” said Tyas “as shoppers spend less time in store, they spend less time browsing and they're coming in specifically looking for their key items.”  

As a response to changing consumer developments, Tyas affirmed that agility and continuity planning had become a part of day-to-day business.

“Most big organisations today have their playbook ready” said Tyas “which is their answer to each individual new policy that may arise in a different part of the country. That's been very important because this virus is non-discriminatory. It can take out key people for a period of time.”

“I can remember…when business continuity plans were something that you kept in the top drawer and got them out when the auditors arrived. Well, that's certainly not the case today.”

Data insights and wargaming

Tyas outlined a future in which the power of data is a cornerstone of a new approach to retail.

The Economist hit us with a headline a couple of years ago that said data is the new oil. Nobody actually uses oil. People use oil refined into products like petroleum. And we use insights."

Chris Tyas, chair at GS1 UK

“Data needs refining into insights before it can be used. And the need to be able to do that and the tools to be able to do that have become very important in this crisis.”

As well as information in context, Tyas spoke about the need for end-to-end supply chain planning. “We don't just have a demand brain and a supply brain. The two have needed to come together in terms of meeting the changing circumstances, that changing demand.

“The ability to do scenario planning, to do ‘what if-ing’, has just become so important. And that integrated planning need will not go away as different trends come through, as we emerge from this crisis.” 

The human factor

Looking to 2021 and beyond, Tyas emphasised that people would have to adjust to a new work order, even with vaccinations starting across the world.

“People talk a lot about blended working, that combination of working from home and working in the office. And I think there are two main challenges to this new world of blended working.”

“The first is, how do we maintain the advantage for individuals of that working from home element but then still be able to rebuild the ideation and the stimulus of face-to-face collaboration.” 

“I think the second…is how do we build the training and networking opportunities for young people and indeed, any new joiners to any organisation in this increasingly blended environment.”

Collaboration is key

One of the themes that ran throughout the conversation was that of collaboration, and that the pressures of the pandemic had brought disparate parts of the supply chain together to work in concert.

“Most important is collaboration across the end-to-end industry” said Tyas “because distributors are not going to solve it themselves, retailers are not going to solve it themselves, manufacturers are not going to solve it themselves, government is not going to solve it themselves. We're going to need that, industry working end-to-end together, to get through all of these challenges.

“I'm always reminded of the quote I think from Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the U.S. who said, “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”