Operation Yellowhammer: Failing to prepare, or preparing to fail?

September 20, 2019

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Martin Newman

By Martin Newman

The Consumer Champion

Until recently, most people who heard the word ‘yellowhammer’ would think of the bird. A quick stroll over to Google will return 500,000 hits for “yellowhammer”. Type in “Operation Yellowhammer” however, and watch that grow to 18.5 million. It is the frankly alarming name given to the government’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit, sketched out by the documents reluctantly released a few days ago.

The government maintains that it represents a “worst case” scenario, a Doomsday prediction written by the gloomiest civil servants they could find – but some journalists, like Rosamund Unwin of the Sunday Times, say they have seen the original files, and they were clearly marked “base case”, the most likely scenario. If this claim is true, then Operation Yellowhammer becomes not an Armageddon-style warning, but actually what the government expects will happen.

The first point of impact is likely to be on imports and exports, especially at the Channel ports, but I’m already picturing queues of HGVs backing up on the M20. The government has estimated that, come October 31st, up to 85% of HGVs coming through Dover – either way – may not be ready for customs. The effect of this will be to reduce the flow of goods with delays of up to two and a half days! We weren’t exactly expecting a zombie apocalypse (or maybe we are now) but if people start panic buying it will soon turn to chaos. Remember the panic over fuel “shortages” in 2000, when all we heard were rumours? Petrol stations across the country ran dry.

So what does all this mean for the high street? The supply chain will obviously be affected, certainly for fresh produce – supermarkets employ all kinds of technology which monitors demand for products with a short shelf life, making it hard to plan – plus Brexit comes at the time of year when our gloomy climate means we’re naturally reliant on more imports. 

The Yellowhammer documents have foreseen the likelihood of the problem being exacerbated by panic-buying. Think about Christmas: the shops close for a day – one day – and we buy enough food to feed ourselves five times over. Multiply that by the uncertainty of Brexit, and the reality is that many people, particularly the most vulnerable, are facing a harsh winter. 

Another problem is likely to be a general rise in prices, thanks to the basic law of supply and demand. Nowhere are the effects of this more serious than fuel, which is something else the documents point to as a potential issue. Of course, rises in the price of petrol and diesel drive prices up across the board, as transport and delivery are reliant on them. Electricity is also predicted to rise. 

So what do retailers need to do? Well, consumers can be reminded that they don’t need to panic buy, but we can’t stop them. What we can do is to make simple changes in store to ensure that things carry on running as smoothly as possible. Emotions will be high and tempers will be frayed, meaning customer service will be more important than ever. 

So while you can’t guarantee that you’ll have enough tomatoes on the shelf, do you really want your staff to spend all day being sent “into the back” to look for some? If you do run out, make customers aware; perhaps you could signpost frozen or canned produce instead. If there are delays at train stations or airports, be sure to have plenty of staff available to answer questions. 

But the best thing you can do for now is to prepare. It’s clear that the government has no more idea about the likely scenario than we do, so if you haven’t started planning yet, perhaps you should – because you can be sure that your competitors will be there to take advantage if you don’t.

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