An open letter to the industry

This open letter was received by Convenience World magazine on 26 March 2020. 

From a concerned retailer

The news slowly starts to trickle through, I take a little bit of notice, but not too much. A virus named after a beer has struck a city in China I have never heard of. Wuhan ­– never heard of it. I shrug my shoulders, and keep working away, looking after my small network of petrol and convenience stores.

The virus starts to spread across the globe – Italy, the UK, other parts of Europe, the Middle East, America, and Australia. That’s right, Australia. Again, my laid back, “she’ll be right mate” Aussie attitude kicks in. How bad could it get? Mate, this is Australia!

Very quickly, the laid-back attitude disappears – it gets very serious, very quickly. Panic buying kicks in, consumers swamp supermarkets, the first product to disappear off the shelves is toilet paper, quickly followed by sanitiser and other hygiene and cleaning products. Supermarkets struggle to contain the mayhem. Consumers wise up. If the supermarkets have run out, let’s hit the convenience stores for product. “How good is this?” I think to myself. The dollars are coming in! Not for long.

As products start to sell out, I quickly realise that I can’t replenish stock. Companies like Asahi, CCA, Frucor Suntory, Unilever, Peters, Red Bull, Pacific Optics, Lion Dairy & Lactalis, all who have a direct-to-store model I have no issues with. It’s the suppliers to our channel that rely on third party distributors that start to give me grief. For a long time, we have been the ugly sister to the supermarket giants in the eyes of these suppliers, but at this moment it’s like we did not even exist. They don’t want to even know who we are. Our third-party distributors are having stock allocated to them ripped away and transferred to the supermarkets. This is crazy.

Reality hits when my confectionary supplier calls to tell me that I need to order as much chocolate from a certain manufacturer as I can take, as he has just been told the allocation to the convenience channel has been cut in half. The other 50% has been re-allocated to Woolworths.

I can’t believe how much of a struggle it is to get stock into store. Our shelves are beginning to empty out. We never sold a huge amount of grocery, but to have nothing to sell at all?

As our shelves empty I think back to the days of when there used to be petrol strikes. I was only a kid in those days, but I would work the bowsers beside my father, filling up customers cars with the rationed $20 worth of fuel. It eerily feels the same.

I begin to look at who could help. Who, as an industry body, has not only my back, but that of my fellow retailers? We are getting torn to shreds.

The fuel side of our business is fine. ACAPMA, our industry body in relation to fuel, workplace safety, compliance, and governance is constantly updating us with information. They have their sleeves rolled up, making sure we are being heard in every government department that needs to hear from us. I feel safe, but the convenience side of my business is still worrying me.

I begin to look at AACS, the organisation formed many years ago to represent the “shop” side of our business. What are they doing? What information are they releasing, other than an article accusing retailers of price gouging! I enquire with a board member to see if they can help in pressuring certain manufacturers to continue to supplying enough stock to the convenience channel. I get told they can’t do much. I begin to wonder what this organisation is meant to do. The newsletters they put out are just a collaboration of articles that can be readily found online. They hold a number of awesome events each year, the pinnacle being the AACS dinner and awards night. A couple of study tours – one overseas, one in Australia, and they commission a state of the industry report each year.

But what are they meant to do?

We, as a convenience industry, are starting to feel the pinch. The coronavirus pandemic is starting to take its toll and it has only just begun. There is limited support. We have two industry bodies looking after us: one for fuel and one for shop. The fuel side, ACAPMA, are all guns blazing, they are in the fight. AACS, I quickly find out is a toothless tiger. A waste of time. A waste of energy and just an organisation for certain individuals to big note themselves, and their companies.

This is a time we need to stand united. We need to be heard. We need a voice. Unfortunately, for myself and many operators in the petrol and convenience channel, our voice is working at 50%. That 50% is the 100% that ACAPMA is screaming. AACS can barely raise a whisper.

When the curve flattens, we as an industry need to have a long hard look at ourselves, and what we represent and who we want to represent us. It’s time for one body, one voice. It is about time ACAPMA and AACS merge for the greater good and long-term survival of the petrol and convenience channel.

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