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Is the post-Covid reduction in choice a problem or opportunity?

Choice. Like it or not, it's at the heart of Western consumerism. And one effect of Covid-19 has been there's less of it to go round.

Case in point: according to research reported in the Grocer, during the lockdown period the number of products available in the top 6 UK supermarkets has dropped by 9%. That may not seem much, but equates to nearly 14,000 lines across 1,600 brands.

Covid lockdown drives 9% reduction in supermarket listings
Covid lockdown drives 9% reduction in supermarket listings

Initially at least, this was a function of supply chain management on the part of both retailers and manufacturers. Particularly so in food and drink sectors. Subsequently it was compounded by retailers switching emphasis to price as the primary purchase consideration once shopper belts started to tighten: when times are tough you don't need a range of fancy options, just the cheapest.

But now that the situation has stabilised (if not necessarily improved), and lockdown starts to ease, what will happen next? Will we return to the way things were, with heaving supermarket shelves and choice once more king, or will a streamlined stocking policy and fewer options be the 'new normal'?

From a retailer perspective, the question asked will be a simple one:

"what did we lose?"

Sometimes there are hidden, often complex interactions at play where basket choices are concerned; a positive equilibrium where dropping even an apparently insignificant product can cause disruption. But more often than not the impact of delisting a minor player on a retailer is minimal. Something Tesco had already shown over recent years, using forensic analysis of its Clubcard data to remove redundant lines that added little value for them or their shoppers.

Now, with the threat of a second Covid spike, a post-lockdown recession and a no deal Brexit all on the horizon, the response of retailers across the board may be to double down on simplified supply and an emphasis on value, ensuring they are as resilient as possible to any future shocks.

Similarly, when seen through shoppers' eyes, such streamlining may not necessarily be such a bad thing either (as long as the cuts are in the right places). Choice overload was already a concern for many, whilst one potential positive to come from lockdown has been the realisation that living more simply has it's benefits...and that enough can be enough.

Add to this the growing awareness of how significant the global environmental challenges we all face are, and many shoppers will be asking if our current model of unfettered consumption needs to change (if not in so many words).

For brands though, the impact of delistings has more significant negative implications given the direct line to business performance. But even here, it is possible to see this through the lens of opportunity. Obviously for some businesses the shutdown of your route to market is a pretty black and white affair: you're in or you're out. And once out, getting back in is the only game in town.

But for businesses with multiple brands, or brands with long tails of smaller products, the situation becomes a bit more complex and challenging. Although it can be reduced to one simple question, not that dissimilar to the one retailers and shoppers are also asking:

"do I really need this?"

There can be a valid strategic reason for a wide range. Minor brands or smaller products may tap into profitable niche markets or reflect future growth opportunities. Or have value to particular retail partners. Sometimes it can just be about competitive spoilers that keep the 'opposition' on their toes.

But equally, trying to support a wide brand portfolio or product range could simply be a legacy position built up over time, with little if any business value. It's the equivalent of hording stuff in the attic...and not necessarily cash. The unnecessary redundancy ends up distracting from the key challenges and diverting attention, investment and time from the things that really matter. In this case, range is a negative drag on performance that businesses are maybe better off without.

Because much as it would be easy for us to go back to the way things were, with choice effectively pitched as both a business necessity and a human right, there is an open door here for doing things differently if we want to go though it. Rather than viewing the pre-Covid legacy position as something to return to, why not embrace the current situation as a one-off 'Year Zero' opportunity; a time of tectonic shifts that allows us to review brand portfolios and product long tails, decide which really adds value to the business (or could do), and to act on this without having to justify why beyond "Covid".

Some questions to think on (which apply equally if you are threatened by or have already suffered delists)...

  • Is this brand meaningful and distinctive vs. other options, with a clear, relevant point and purpose* in people's lives (and so on supermarket shelves)?

  • Do products meet the (practical) needs of customers, shoppers, consumers, and do this more effectively than the competition?

  • Do both brands and products support the strategic objectives of the business?

If the answer is 'no' (especially if to more than one), then there are two further questions to answer: can they, and is this worth doing? If the answer to either is 'no' as well, then maybe we are looking at something that is actually surplus to requirements after all.

(*here I'm defining 'purpose' not as making an ad that supports Black Lives Matter, but as having a role and benefit for people in the lives they lead beyond just providing a decent product or service...which I'll take as a given)

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