We are going to take a break from our efforts to define industry terms to share some insights about managing your customer relationships when business is disrupted. Last Friday and Saturday we had hurricane Fiona rip through many communities in Atlantic Canada. I am sure you have seen the images on the news of homes being swept out to sea and hundreds of thousands of people with no power for days.
Certainly, one positive to come from the storm is to re-connect with the many people who have reached out from across the country to see how we are doing. We were fortunate to only lose one large tree in our front yard. The tree missed the power lines and the house but unfortunately a family of barred owls will be looking for a new nesting spot in the spring. We had power back within 24 hours so were much more fortunate than many.
When these generational storms, which seem to be happening every year, are forecasted, it is an opportunity to improve your relationships with your customers. You have to prepare your own business and do what is right for your employees to prepare. You should also consider what needs to be done to take care of your customers.
Before the weather event
Many of your customers could be located in different regions and they may or may not be aware of the forecast. If we use hurricane Fiona as an example, people in Atlantic Canada were probably much more aware of the impending storm than people in other regions of Canada. When you start to see the forecasts, it is always good to let your buyers and merchandisers know there is something on the horizon. Weather forecasting is not a perfect science, but when it is clear your business and theirs will be impacted it is a good idea to communicate with your customers.
It is good to tell them something is happening, but it is better to also tell them what you are doing to prepare. This illustrates to them you are proactive and you care about their business too. Examples of this could be packing orders in advance, in case you lose power or even asking if they want orders moved ahead. Some retailers in Atlantic Canada appreciated suppliers who could move extra product to Newfoundland in advance of the storm. Ferry service is often interrupted so if extra product is shipped out of stocks are less likely.
If your buyers are located in other parts of the country, they might not be aware of the regional geography that you do know about. In Atlantic Canada the bridge to PEI and the narrow stretch of highway between N.B. and N.S. called the Tantramar Marsh can be closed with high winds. Moving product in advance across these two spots can reduce issues. Every region of the country has unique challenges to moving product.
Communicate with your logistics partners to see what they have planned. They have to protect their equipment and employees so they might be changing routes or schedules. This might benefit you or hurt you, but you and your customers need to be aware.
Check order history during similar events from the past. Your customer cannot check all 35,000 SKUS but you can check your items. This is even more important for perishable items. In the case of Hurricane Fiona people in some places will lose all of the food in their fridge and freezer. This might reduce short term demand because they have no power but then once it comes back, they will need to replace items. Any help you can give the buyers is usually appreciated.
Let your customers know what you are doing in your business to prepare. If I think back to my days at Loblaw, it was good when I could share what our suppliers were doing to protect the product we were expecting and reduce the disruptions. I did not take credit for it, but it was more of a partnership and they like some insights into what you are doing.
Let them know you will communicate during the storm. If they do not hear from you, that is a message to them you have no power and/or Internet. You do not want them to reach out and get no answer, because they might assume you are focused on something else.
During the weather event
If it is really bad there is not much you can do while the storm is happening. If you do still have power and Internet, you can send them a brief update. Send them a picture or two if you can.
Be realistic. They are trying to make plans so the more accurate you are the better.
Once you can assess the damage and the situation you are in give them an update. Power outages and damage to buildings and equipment are beyond your control. Let them know, if you can, what your business is facing in the upcoming days. Will you be able to ship product if needed? Also, you can let them know about any of the issues we mentioned previously like the bridge to PEI being closed. They might or might not be aware.
After the weather event
Once you do have a chance to assess the state of your business, send them an update. Include pictures if you can. Some challenges might be short term and others might be more long term. An example would be in PEI a number of dairy farms lost barns and/or silos. This will not impact shipments immediately but it is a hurdle for producers and processors to overcome. Often the industry will come together to help each other out and these are the types of things retailers do want to hear about. It is knowledge about the value chain.
Once you know your capabilities, try to understand what the customers need. They will have their own issues in the market such as power outages or reduced road access. If they have stores closed, they might want to reduce orders in the short term, then increase them once stores are re-opened and consumers get power back.
Earlier this year we talked about auto replenishment. These systems are great when demand is predictable. A weather event like a hurricane does not work well with auto replenishment. This is where we need people to step up and figure out the best solution. As difficult as these storms are, they are also an opportunity to build relationships with your customers. They will not order more next week, but in the long term you are providing solutions which they appreciate.
If you have any questions or require help working through a weather event, you can always send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (902) 489-2900.
Fiona’s impact on the Atlantic Canadian food industry
It is early to predict the total impact of hurricane Fiona. We do know many coastal communities, that rely on fishing, were severely affected. Equipment and inventory losses will be huge and the ability to harvest will be reduced in the upcoming weeks.
As we mentioned, dairy farms in PEI lost barns and silos plus the extended power outage hurt their ability to milk cows. So many issues up and down the value chain to consider.
FCC mid-year update on the food and beverage industry
On Tuesday October 4th J.P. Gervais from FCC will give a mid year update for the food and beverage industry. This is great information you can use to bench mark against the performance across the country.
You do need to know how you are performing and where the opportunities are. In this update J.P. will be focused on labour, exchange rates and domestic food consumption. I would encourage you to register!
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Food and Beverage Masterclass
Food and Beverage Atlantic is preparing a Business Building Masterclass this fall, starting November 9th. This virtual course (held one morning per week for 6 weeks) is designed to help business owners and leaders develop a roadmap for managing, improving and scaling their food & beverage business. The course covers all aspects of general business, from defining purpose and competitive strategy to building high performing teams and managing for profit. Attendees will work together in a workshop setting to learn techniques and skills using a case study and sharing their experiences.
There are only 15 spots available! For more information or to register, click the link below.