24 May 2024, 17:19
By Furniture News Nov 07, 2023

Raking over old coals

With the Covid inquiry's findings coming thick and fast, Furniture News' Paul Farley looks back at his own coverage of the approaching pandemic in February 2020, and considers what might be learned from it … 

While storm Ciarán has, at best, forced us to rake our lawns, it’s been more of a case of raking over old coals this week, as the Covid inquiry brings revelation after grubby revelation to light.

Yes, there were successes, and we should never underestimate the scale of the challenge facing Government at that time. But the big news is the failures. Abysmal working culture, political point scoring, and, at the heart of it all, indecisiveness, hypocrisy, mistakes and poor policymaking that, taken together, may have cost thousands of lives.

While few of these accounts are truly surprising in isolation, their immortalisation in public record paints a grim picture, the dirty laundry of a global disaster.

I can’t even begin to understand how this evidence will impact anyone who suffered serious loss during those years. Did the Government lock us down too late? Was herd immunity a serious strategy? Did anyone really appreciate the threat of the virus until it was too late?

In early February 2020, prompted by mounting media noise, I reached out to several contacts in an effort to grasp the implications of this ‘novel coronavirus’ and its possible impact on the UK furniture trade. Today, in the spirit of the Covid inquiry, I’m reflecting on some of the points the subsequent article raised …

“The coronavirus outbreak has come at an unfortunate time, when GDP is already on a downward trend and China is facing complex challenges, including a trade war with the US”

With Brexit still some way through delivery, the UK’s bureaucratic mechanisms were far from well oiled – yet crisis planning for a no-deal outcome would at least have helped us anticipate some of the worst-case trading scenarios, while coming out of Europe arguably helped the UK execute the vaccination programme faster than it might have otherwise.

“We’re anticipating six months of disruption”

If only. And this was a realist importer’s perspective – even by February, the knock-on effects were mounting fast.

“We won’t see the majority of the repercussions for 6-8 months”

While the virus’ immediate impact is impossible to forget, we’re still experiencing the longer-term consequences. As consumers, we’ve reassessed our attitudes to everything from spending, leisure and risk, to family, health, and working practices. Our spending patterns are still out of kilter.

In the trade, the victims of sky-high freight fees are still coming forward, the burden of absorbing so many extra costs finally proving too much to bear.

With the home spending craze making way for inflationary pressures, high stocks remain in warehouses and docks, as owners weight up the cost of disposal against mounting storage and demurrage fees. And although the ecommerce boom is behind us, there’s little doubt the pandemic accelerated consumers’ willingness to shop for furniture online.

“The outbreak has thrown China’s role in the global economy into stark relief”

A good deal of re-sourcing took place during the pandemic, with many buyers turning to the Far East, Eastern Europe, and now the US, in order to redistribute their eggs into separate (if costlier) baskets. The political situation concerning China – whether Trump is re-elected or otherwise – remains unpredictable.

Although some hoped that the barriers to imports would give British-made furniture a major fillip, a reliance on materials and components from overseas held back what could have been a more decisive swing. A lack of capacity, exacerbated by inconsistent staffing (especially in large factories where the spread of infection was an ever-present risk), often resulted in a tendency to over-promise and under-deliver. Order books could take many, many months to fulfil, leaving behind a trail of disappointed customers.

“China’s principal Q1 trade shows have been cancelled or postponed”

The events industry truly had a rough time during the pandemic, and attempts to reschedule exhibitions within new timeframes, or in online formats, rarely proved successful. The reverberations in the buying cycle persist – Germany’s imm cologne is only just getting around to staging its first in-person January event since 2020.

“We factor in a longer lead time than is actually required”

Although the fast-evolving situation stifled more effective planning, regular and honest communication between stakeholders and customers proved of real value. Many will long remember how their partners behaved under pressure.

“Prices will inevitably start to rise”

And rise they did, driven by soaring freight and material costs. Some businesses spent the entire pandemic trying to monitor and reflect the almost-daily variations in prices – but most did what they could to absorb the increases rather than pass them on to their customers.

With such high demand across the board, was there an opportunity to hike shop prices, and realign the UK consumer’s expectation of how much they should pay for furniture? Unlikely, given the pressures arrayed against both seller and consumer at the time. Nonetheless, shop prices would only begin to increase more significantly in 2022.

“It will take clear, honest communication from all stakeholders to successfully navigate the coming months”

The prevention of face-to-face business opened the door instead to videocall culture, and communication was key. Businesses that shied away paid the price, and management ensconced in ivory towers soon noticed a growing disconnect from their staff – the people that would quickly become their most valuable commodity.

“I remain hopeful – confident even – that the UK can remain essentially virus-free, because of our border controls and health system infrastructure. But should that situation deteriorate, then face-to-face retail will inevitably suffer – the most dangerous thing we need to be cognisant of is public hysteria and scaremongering”

Perhaps we had more faith in our systems than they deserved (take the failure of Test and Trace). But further consideration simply brings up more questions, like those the Covid inquiry is currently grappling with. Might better communication have mitigated Covid-19’s impact? Should the UK have locked down sooner?

Looking back, moving ahead

The furniture industry as a whole proved resilient during the pandemic, in large part thanks to the nation effectively being placed under home arrest for long periods of time. Those consumers were also unable to spend on other big-ticket purchases such as overseas travel, or were transitioning from office work to hybrid/home-working set-ups. It was a boom time for home goods, with demand commonly exceeding supply.

Today, furniture businesses continue to wrestle with the costs of fulfilling that boomtime demand, striving to live up to perhaps unattainable YoY comparatives while laying foundations for the future.

While we may have expected the reassertion of some stability three years on from the pandemic’s outset, the Covid inquiry findings arrive at a time of ongoing uncertainty, with persistent inflationary pressures, volatile global relations and the approach of a general election.

Given the plethora of challenges to be faced down today, why face up to the unanswered questions of yesterday? What use is raking over old coals?

I’ve long had a healthy respect for the lessons of history, and for the damage pandemics can wreak. But, writing that article in early 2020, and watching the case numbers grow from country to country, I too shied away from exploring the more extreme scenarios (including national lockdowns). Airing such concerns felt like an overreaction, and some of the possibilities were just too frightening.

Either way, just as the Covid inquiry threatens to dredge up some things we’d rather forget, what remains makes for a sobering read. Let us hope that, politician or professional, we're able to learn from our experiences, and emerge better equipped to deal with the next crisis.

Paul Farley is the editor-in-chief of Furniture News magazine.

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