Business management

Lockdown lessons: how sectors pivoted to success

Experts in manufacturing, retail and farming explain the challenges their sectors face and the lessons that are emerging as British firms seek new ways to do business.


Tim Figures is director of technology, sustainability and innovation at the manufacturers’ organisation Make UK

“The efforts British manufacturers have made to adapt quickly to the pandemic have produced powerful lessons and a few surprises.

“Our members have learned that the more digital they were at the start of the lockdown and the more effort they’d already made in adopting new technology, the more resilient they proved to be and the easier they’ve found it to get back to normal production.

“Before the lockdown, the motivation for introducing new technologies might have been to increase productivity and cut costs, but it also made them flexible and better placed to make sudden changes to the way they operate.

“Businesses that had adopted virtual reality, for instance, were able to visualise new products for customers without sending out a sales rep, and even use it to get regulatory approval.

“One surprise was packaging, which was often the bottleneck when people switched products and distribution channels. It wasn’t hard for some companies to pivot into making hand sanitiser, for instance; the hard part was finding thousands of small plastic bottles. With toilet paper, the problem was switching from the way industrial toilet paper is packaged and distributed to the way we package domestic toilet paper. It was the same shifting from wholesale to domestic packaging of food, whether you needed tins for baked beans or punnets for fresh mushrooms.

“Manufacturers have done pretty well handling the initial disruption, and most are busy planning to get back to full production. Businesses are aware they need to have a better understanding of their supply chains and how reliable they are. They’ve also learned that flexibility is key to resilience, which takes us back to the beauty of technologies like 3D printing or additive technology. Once you’ve adopted it, you just need a new template and you can switch to almost any product. 

“The danger is to think the next crisis will be like this one. There’s no point stockpiling PPE because next time it could be a computer virus rather than coronavirus. The goal is to be as flexible and nimble as possible, and digital technology is the best guarantee of that.”


Professor Leigh Sparks is deputy principal in marketing and retail at the University of Stirling

“We’ve seen retailers moving more online and producers going direct to customers, and in some cases working collaboratively with other producers and retailers. The question is whether they can do it profitably and whether this will continue when the normal retail and distribution sector comes back.

“Some outlets have been agile – and that includes small vendors as well as bigger, better-resourced businesses. Some retailers have adjusted their product lines, like fashion outlets quickly introducing face coverings and masks, but the more important changes have been around the challenge of how to reach customers when it’s harder for people go shopping.

The danger is to think the next crisis will be like this one. There’s no point stockpiling PPE because next time it could be a computer virus rather than coronavirus

Tim Figures
Director of technology, sustainability and innovation, Make UK

“Wild Hearth Bakery in Comrie, west of Perth, sells high-quality sourdough that was previously sold primarily to wholesalers. They pivoted quickly to home delivery but were so successful they had a problem keeping up with the volume. They changed production methods, then paused and pivoted again to adjust delivery strategy. They’ve switched from a wholesale-focused website to a customer-facing one and have now added a couple of other suppliers to their home deliveries, including a coffee roaster and a collective offering salad products.

“A lot of businesses are collaborating. In St Andrews and Stirling, they’ve got together to push products from their area, creating hubs online and in collection or distribution sites. You can see that model of a central hub working for non-food retailers as well.

“One of the biggest success stories has been local convenience stores moving to home deliveries, with many seeing a massive increase in reach and basket size. There are interesting consumer changes, too, that might be permanent – online purchases have gone from 7% to 13% of grocery sales, and I think some of that will be permanent.

“The pandemic has been an accelerant. It’s kicked forward the shift online by two or three years in a few weeks. Many retailers will struggle to maintain that, but some will keep it up.

“An important test now is finding the skills retailers need to carry through these changes. Individual retailers find it more difficult than larger operators to get the right partners for online work and marketing so there’s a need for collaboration and coordination.

“People have to think harder about where the market is instead of expecting customers to keep coming to them, but that’s always been at the heart of retailing. We’ve already proven that solutions are possible if we’re bold and rethink our systems and relationships.”


Richard Hirst is a Norfolk farmer and past chairman of the National Farmers’ Union Horticulture and Potatoes Board

“Diversity and flexibility have been crucial in helping farmers cope with the pandemic. In our area [Hemsby, north of Great Yarmouth], people have tried various things to reduce the risk of relying solely on cropping by running horse-livery yards or campsites. I know one farmer who has started selling specialist farm machinery.

“Our family has been on this farm since 1955, but my wife, Katrina, and I began to diversify in the early 2000s to give our three children options for staying in the business. First, we opened a livery yard and then a fun park, Hirsty’s Family Fun Park. On the first day in 2007, we opened a maze and had nine members of staff and only six visitors, but you have to go through that learning and building period.

“We farm about 450 hectares and have 130 head of cattle, 250 ewes and a pig-fattening unit. We grow wheat, barley, sugar beet, vining peas, potatoes and salads, with 10% of the farm in environmental stewardship schemes.

“The fun park is seasonal with four events a year, and the first two this year were cancelled because of lockdown, which put a big hole in our turnover. We cook and sell our own meat to customers of the fun park and were dabbling with a farm shop selling mostly frozen beef and lamb. At the beginning of March, we decided the farm shop wasn’t working so we were going to shut it, but then lockdown changed people’s buying habits and it took off.

“Now we sell fresh beef, lamb, pork and chicken, and fruit and veg. When people were locked down, we were taking orders over the phone and delivering a lot to surrounding villages, but 95% of customers would now be picking it up. We started making pies and frozen ready meals, too. They were popular in March and April, but as the weather has warmed up it’s now more BBQ stuff.

“Someone approached us about putting a drive-in cinema in our car park so that’s coming along. We’ve promoted ourselves mainly on social media, but we’ve had some trouble with our website so we’re trying not to do shop orders through it. None of us are very IT-savvy so we kept pushing it aside, then we lost our online tickets overnight when we were about to open the fun park. We have to work on that, but in general it would be difficult to do what we’ve done with the shop without the experience we’d already built up trying different activities.”

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