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Independent grocers keep shelves stocked

While Australia’s major supermarket chains may have experienced stock shortages due to COVID delays, Sydney and Melbourne produce markets are reporting plentiful supply with distribution largely unaffected.

The spread of the virus and isolation of many workers has seen shelves empty at big supermarkets along the east coast in recent weeks.

National cabinet this week agreed to relax close contact isolation rules in a bid to resolve the growing crisis.

But Jason Cooper, CEO of Fresh State who represents wholesalers at the Melbourne Markets, says the pandemic has provided a win for independent players and lessons for major retailers.

He insists there simply haven’t been the same challenges for the independents because they march to a different beat.

“The independent retailers predominantly get their produce out of the central market system … and we don’t have supply issues,” he says.

“For whatever reasons there are different distribution processes within the industry.

“Was it through good luck or good management? I don’t know but certainly the pandemic has shown up some challenges for (the supermarkets) and it’s probably something they need to go back and consider for the future.”

More than 5000 businesses including independent greengrocers and supermarkets buy from produce markets for distribution across Victoria and Australia.

Cooper says with a bigger pool to choose from, any shortages can usually be covered by another grower.

“We have a different distribution model, we’re not reliant on one particular system or one group of employees,” he says.

“Effectively there are 500 independent businesses that operate out of the Melbourne markets.

“Because you’ve got a couple of thousand retailers that come in, it minimises the risk to the supply chain because once they’ve bought the produce they’re putting it on their own trucks and taking it out to their stores.”

It’s a similar story at the Sydney Markets according to wholesale agent Shaun McInerney.

More than 700 businesses operate stalls and their customers include the independent supermarkets.

“The product still goes in and out every day and that’s why the independents have been able to keep their shelves full,” he tells AAP.

“Some of the major retailers would have struggled because … a lot of the eggs are in one basket, there are only a limited number of people who supply to them directly.”

McInerney, who also sits on the Sydney Markets board, says local independent stores have still been getting the produce they need, although he concedes prices can be higher.

“Shopping at your independents is vital to keep diversity in retail which equals diversity in the growing base” he says.

One wholesaler whose customer base also includes Australia’s major retailers, says the big players need to take stock in the wake of their supply chain woes.

The wholesaler, who prefers to remain anonymous, had their order cut back 40 per cent by Woolworths in the week after Christmas.

“In the wholesale market, encouraging and supporting independent retailers is crucial,” they say.

“The bigger retailers might take a lesson from that in having a little more diversity in their supply chain rather than keeping it as efficient and low cost as they can through less distribution centres.”

Woolworths and Coles recently cut some supplier orders specifically because of the supply chain issues.

Yet the latter says it’s committed to collaborating with farmers.

“Our network includes more than 830 stores across the country,” says a company spokesman.

“And with increased demand from customers staying home and cooking their own meals, the volume of fresh produce Coles requires would not be possible to secure from wholesale markets.”

Woolworths says cutting orders was a short term solution and they are beginning to be restored, with shelves filling up again.

“We’ve been able to start increasing some of our fruit and vegetable orders again and we’ll continue to monitor the situation with our supply partners.”

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud says one of the upsides of the crisis is that it has shone a light on the mistreatment of farmers.

“This is really an evolution of farmers having just had a gutful of the big supermarkets doing them over and they’ve been continually doing them over, promising them the world,” he told Sky News.

“They go and make big capital investments in buying new farms and then they don’t have the contracts at the end of it; the supermarkets walk away from them.”

Littleproud says he’s seeing a real change whereby people are concerned about the provenance of their food and want it to be more local.

“And I think this is the exciting thing for our agricultural sector – that they don’t have to just play in the big supermarket sand pit anymore.”

Vincent Brancatisano is a farm produce agent and wholesaler at the Melbourne Markets and says consumers need to be aware they have options.

“They don’t just have to flock to the major chains all the time … there are lots of independent operators out there that have access to as much produce as they want every day.”

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