As the lockdown goes on and we have to spend tonnes of effort for things that we took for granted, there are some things I’m thankful I don’t have to spend effort for.
For example, ever since we returned to India a year ago, we’ve got milk delivered to the door every morning, and that continues. We buy our vegetables from this guy who drives a small truck in front of our road every other day (the time at which he arrives is less certain, but he maintains his thrice-a-week schedule).
For eggs, and as backup for vegetables, there is this “HOPCOMS” (a government-run fruits and vegetables shop) 100 metres from where I stay. The thing is so empty most of the time that I wonder if it would continue to exist if it had a profit motive.
It’s only for our staples, toiletries and other groceries that we have to visit organised stores, and in that too, I patronise this “independent supermarket” run by an enterprising bunch of Mallus rather than a chain. Plenty of other kinds of redundancy exists in the area where we live – there are a few family-owned grocers who don’t stock any “long tail stuff” but can supply the staples. And so forth.
This is very different from the situation in London, where I lived for two year, where for pretty much everything you go to the supermarket. If you are looking for “regular” stuff, you go to the little Tesco at the corner. If you want long tail stuff, you walk farther to the large-format Tesco. Bread, dairy, fruits and vegetables, groceries – for everything you go to Tesco. There were “unbranded” retail stores around as well (“off-licenses”, I think, they were called), but pretty much nobody ever went there.
It is the time of crisis when you start appreciating redundancy and inefficiency. All the “local supply chains” that we’ve relied upon continue to be reliable (the only exception being bread – all local bakeries are shut). It’s only for staples and toiletries that one needs to go to the supermarket.
Actually, not really, unless you are looking for long tail stuff. On my way back from the supermarket last Wednesday, I drove past one of the small family-owned groceries around here. There was a line one person long there. In other words, being a rather “inefficient” system around here, redundancy exists, and it is invaluable at crisis time.
Contrast this to a place like London, or even Gurgaon (or Gurgaon-like localities in other cities in India), where most shopping is done in branded chain stores. In that kind of scenario, at the time of crisis, there is no way out. The overoptimised and stretched (but “efficient”) supply chains mean that things come to a halt. You have no option but to regularly go to the supermarket and line up, and hope that their supply doesn’t run out.
My shopping habits apart, the larger question I’m wondering about is – once the crisis is over, how do we incentivise inefficiency? Clearly there are benefits to come out of inefficiency, in terms of slack in the system and greater resilience at the time of stress. However, these benefits are seldom seen in normal times, thanks to which businesses that push tail risks under the carpet can deliver super-normal returns and drive the more careful ones out of business.
We don’t know when the next such crisis will hit. It is highly likely that the next crisis will be nothing like this crisis, and we have no clue what it will be like. So how can we be prepared and have enough inefficiency in the system that when it comes around we are resilient?
Right now I have no answers.