WASHINGTON -- The great unknown of the year-2000 problem, and potentially its most troublesome aspect, is how consumers will behave as 1999 draws to a close. Most industry groups and government bodies believe the food-industry's supply chains will be able to keep stores stocked, despite fallout from potential computer failures.
If people gripped by "Y2K panic" stockpile or hoard food and other necessities, however, they could empty store shelves more effectively than a faulty computer system, which could in turn induce more panicked buying.
According to the Food Marketing Institute here, convincing consumers not to over-stockpile food and basic necessities during the millennium rollover is the food industry's Y2K mission for the remainder of this year. "The consensus is that we [the food industry] are ready for Y2K," said Michael Sansolo, the FMI's senior vice president. "The key issue is, how will the consumer act, and how do we keep them from needless or frivolous stockpiling?"
Sansolo and Jennifer Hatcher, the FMI's director of government relations, conducted a Y2K Business Contingency Planning forum last week via a live "Web-cast." Participants, including retailers and journalists, could type in real-time questions and comments, chat-room style.
"We need to let [consumers] know that we have experienced natural disasters and crises before, and have always found a way to deal with them," said Sansolo. He and Hatcher noted that organizations such as the Red Cross have recommended people prepare for Y2K as if it were a heavy snowstorm, buying only a few days' worth of canned goods and making sure they have flashlights, batteries and the like.
One of the few areas where supermarkets may face sourcing problems during the Jan. 1 period is with imported perishable items. "Supermarkets may need to identify alternative sources," for such products, according to Hatcher.
The FMI is focusing the bulk of its efforts in the next few months on reassuring consumers that stores will be open and product will be available during this period. The FMI has sent letters to the major women's magazines outlining the industry's readiness for year 2000, one of which is scheduled to be part of a Y2K article in the October issue of Redbook, according to Hatcher.
In addition, working with the Grocery Manufacturers of America here, the FMI has offered prepared columns and radio spots about the food industry's preparations, designed for local media, which were scheduled to begin appearing last week.
"We need to get Y2K education out as widely as possible," said Sansolo.
Another key issue for supermarkets is training store personnel to deal with customer's questions about Y2K. Sansolo, Hatcher and several of the participants recommended creating brochures that outline a company's awareness of the Y2K issue, describe the steps taken to deal with it and offer recommendations about consumer preparedness.
"Having a brochure available takes away from each clerk's individual 'spin' on the company's Y2K preparedness," noted Sansolo. The FMI offers a brochure that retailers can download from the association's Web site, www.fmi.org, and personalize with their company name.
Part of the FMI's efforts to determine the actual likelihood of panic buying include monitoring Web sites and Internet chat rooms. "We're monitoring about 40,000 chat rooms for Y2K food issues," said Hatcher. These may be more indicative of extreme groups or the fringes of public opinion, however: "About 95% of the things on the Internet are survivalist-oriented," said Sansolo.
Hatcher also noted that the FMI is working with the White House Y2K information coordination center to enlist companies to provide field information for the crucial Dec. 29, 1999-Jan. 3, 2000 period. "This group will want to know if there are problems with product availability, if people are dealing with power outages or if it's just business as usual," she said.