Throughout the pandemic US consumers have demonstrated unprecedented demand for groceries. In March and April 2020 nationwide grocery consumption surged one-third or higher Year-Over-Year for many product categories. Some of this reflected very real channel-shifting as restaurants closed. As occasional empty shelves emerged, FOMO also played its part.
By Thanksgiving 2020 grocery demand had settled at about one-tenth higher than pre-pandemic, with product-specific spikes, such as 18 percent higher for frozen and 28 percent higher for seafood. This made sense (to me). I expected this level of grocery demand and volatility to continue until restaurant dining resumed.
Consumer attitudes toward dining out remain cautious. But actual spending on food away from home reclaimed pre-pandemic totals this May and is now above November 2019 (more). Nonetheless, current grocery consumption is another four percent higher than elevated 2020 demand. I am surprised.
Positive possibility: during the pandemic people rediscovered the joy of cooking and eating with family at home. Probable factor: until recently many Americans had more cash on hand and have been demonstrably ready to spend it. Less positive possibility: people continue to be nervous about stock-outs or worse.
All and more could be at play.
For several weeks I have been in unusually intense supply chain-related discussions, mostly with government officials, reporters, or supply chain professionals. There have been plenty of problems — as previously addressed here and here and here and elsewhere. But while difficulties are real, troublesome, and often frustrating, for me these have been “interesting” problems mostly arising from robust spending rather than profound need or hunger or hurt. I have not been (and am not now) concerned about supply chain “failure.”
But last week I belatedly recognized a deep anxiety with which many (millions, I now assume) are viewing supply chains. This seems to begin with the occasional empty shelf at the grocery store (more). When and why and for how long something disappears strikes most consumers as undecipherable. Then there is inflation. Turkey prices are almost one quarter higher than last Thanksgiving. A tank of gas costs one-quarter more than 2019 and almost one-third more than last year. The cause of inflation and its prospects are a matter of mind-bending debate (more). Framing these intimate encounters with less predictability and higher costs have been recurring headlines regarding our supply chain crisis (here and here and here). Explanations range from simplistic to sublime, but for most consumers personal implications remain inscrutable. Systemic implications can sound like science fiction. (Does anyone else perceive analogies with the Spacing Guild?)
Then, of course, there is the pandemic, which is implicated in many of these problems. Perceiving some kind of connection among these shifting patterns is not just paranoia.
Evolution taught us to be attentive to changing patterns. We were — still can be — a vulnerable species. Being able to perceive not yet fully formed threats gave humanity decisive protective (and predatory) advantages. Observation — watchfulness — is fundamental. But it is our imagination that works to unveil potential meaning behind the feedback. Intellectually we may agree that life is uncertain. But emotionally (perhaps even physically), extended ambiguity can prompt a primitive predisposition for immediate response.
“If this is truly a crisis, what should I do?”
Our watchful range has profoundly expanded. Within this range we can observe more change more precisely than ever before. Whether or not change has become more rapid, our ability to experience change over space and time has certainly grown. Our sense-making — meaning-making — ability has not always kept up with this shift in experiential scope and scale.
How do we constructively, creatively — even collaboratively — apprehend ambiguity?
Given all the bottlenecks and chokepoints now exposed, it may be meaningful to note that the ancient Greek from which anxiety is derived is ἄγχω (ánkhō) meaning “to choke”. When our throats, personal or metaphorical, are constricted we can become obsessed about quickly clearing. But a tracheotomy is seldom needed. A Heimlich maneuver can be an over-reaction. Hyperventilating will further complicate.
A sip of water may suffice. A calm, deep breath can help.
Working with supply chain professionals, this is the worldview, attitude, and behavior that I consistently encounter. The constrictions are real and can be complicated. Unusual shifts in demand have revealed sources of friction that previously were seldom worse than inconvenient. Now, given increased — and volatile — volume, these pinch-points are limiting velocity (both direction and speed) needed to deliver even more volume. The pros are mitigating the problems. Progress is being made. Huge volumes — much more than before — are flowing.
A few weeks ago I was talking to a reporter about my angle on demand as the core cause of the perceived crisis. After I had moved through about a dozen data points with this very supply chain-savvy guy, he said, “Makes total sense, Phil. But you’re not giving me a bad guy to blame.” It was an authentic — and self-critical — complaint. The media is not alone in wanting to replace ambiguity with someone or at least something to blame.
Where objects of anxiety are typically ambiguous, fear tends to focus. Fear will find a bad guy or something to blame. When there is a bad guy or other specific cause, this is helpful. When the actual cause is complicated or complex, this reductionism is counter-productive. It is not a huge leap from FOMO to fear itself.
Too often it is fear itself that transforms a problem-to-be-solved into catastrophe.
Americans are anxious about inflation, about the general direction of the nation, about climate change, and more. Last week I heard from smart folks who have added fear of supply chain failure to this list. They are not alone. In a recent McKinsey & Company survey of business executives supply chain disruptions were identified as the single greatest threat to economic growth. Once again, perceiving potential relationships between these problems is not just paranoia (though paranoia can also be involved).
I have been so engaged working with others to accurately understand and resolve practical supply chain problems — and even succeeding some (more) — I failed to feel this rising anxiety. I am late to appreciate that my more political colleagues have been working tirelessly to assuage this anxiety. Until now, I found many of their efforts annoying: political theater that tended to obscure more than clarify supply chain behavior. I could have been more helpful. I should have embraced the role that anxiety (including FOMO and even “retail therapy”) is playing in strong consumption. I should have been doing my part to reduce the impact of this demand accelerant. I expect some of my political colleagues have found me annoying: blind to the reality of increasing public anxiety.
Anxiety acknowledges disequilibrium. Anxiety can help us locate and label real problems. Anxiety can even motivate reaching-out for help to solve these problems. But we need to learn to deploy anxiety, rather than be deployed by fear.
Almost two centuries ago Søren Kierkegaard pondered Grimm’s Fairy Tale of the Boy who went Forth to Learn Fear. It is a complicated, perhaps paradoxical, tale of fearlessness. The Danish philosopher concluded “This is an adventure that every human being must go through — to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish either by never having been in anxiety or succumbing to anxiety. Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”
We are living in a moment with abundant opportunities to learn the ultimate.