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COVID-19: Time to get creative with sourcing

By Retail Technology | Thursday June 25 2020 | UPDATED 25.03.21

No retailer could have predicted the impact of COVID-19, but how do you combat such unprecedented events? By increasing sourcing channels and your ability to react says Virtualstock’s Tim Hay-Edie

Remember when COVID initially hit, and how the “home office” quickly became a key feature of our new reality? How, along with planning our Zoom back drops, we all realised we needed a better printer?

Consequently, and in hindsight it was perfectly predictable, all the decent “home office” printers were immediately sold out. Like hand sanitiser, flour, and sweatpants, the “home office” printer was one of a basket of COVID products we did not realise was a necessity until there were none.

At the time I checked John Lewis, Argos and Currys PC World. There were a few low-end and a few super spec items, but all the compact, wifi-enabled laser printers were firmly “out of stock”.

Printers are bulky, low margin products that retailers purchase in volume from distributors. The re-stock only arrives by container ship. It is all predictable and not terribly exciting, and then the pandemic happened.

Retailers do not have special predictive powers, but the successful ones were those who reacted well - both to a change in consumer demand, and to the new customer experience presented by COVID.

Product ranges

If certain product ranges are not selling clearly you have to respond. You can drop prices, diversify, or even radically reshape your product range - like Boohoo - who seemingly overnight moved from fashion to leisure.

Conversely, how do you react if certain product ranges are selling out fast? Without dramatically increasing prices (which some marketplace sellers were accused of), the response is to ration, to source new supply, and to explain to consumers what you are doing “at this difficult time”. Consumers want to see fairness, and will forgive logical, clear explanations for the retailer’s actions. Listing a whole product category as “out of stock” probably misses the last point.

So where do you find products at short notice - like printers? With the stocked-in distributor channel temporarily bare, buyers had to source from B2B marketplaces like Alibaba, or they had to dropship.

Dropship, or direct to customer fulfilment, is not all long lead times and products shipped from China. In normal times dropship can be used to extend a core range of products, and to reduce the risk of unsold stock. In the current situation dropship allows retailers to source depleted products from a wide variety of local suppliers who have the required stock. The dropship supplier fulfills the order directly to the customer. The customer wins, and the retailer wins.

Traditional supply chains may have higher incremental margins, but they are fragile. What cost one break in the chain? What if your distribution centre shuts down? The business case to hedge against supply chain disruption is clear.

The cost of dropship to the retailer is the time invested in setting up the channel. This requires sourcing the products, agreeing terms with suppliers, loading the products onto the website, and getting real time visibility of the stock and order lifecycle.

At times like these the “buy or build” argument seems like a false economy, especially with the time pressures involved, and where there are tactical “plug & play” dropship platforms available. The retailer’s investment is mostly the internal cost of implementing a change management programme to ensure processes across all channels meet customer expectations.

The best short term advice I have heard is to use your own team as mystery shoppers to constantly test your website, your ranging, your availability, your messaging, your returns process - indeed the full customer experience across all touch points in these “difficult times”. And to do the same as your stores reopen. Getting it wrong is unforgivable. Dropship will help with online ranging and availability.

Customer fulfilment

The retailers that have been successful over this period have got this right, and some spectacularly so. The best performers have all been digital-led, with diverse product ranges and direct to customer fulfilment.

If this is the new normal, then new solutions are required. “See you on the other side” is a dangerous pipe dream as it suggests we can just hold on and everything will be OK again soon.

“Soon” is too late. With the added demands of homeschooling, my new “home office” printer could not wait. I ended up shipping it from a German highstreet retailer and paying €10 extra for the delivery. All my go-to retailers have since re-stocked their printers but that’s not the point. An unexpected sourcing exercise for me is a lost sale for them.

At the very least the retail sector will continue to be unpredictable. The easing of restrictions will be changeable, consumer behaviour unreliable, and the chance of renewed lockdown ever possible. If this crisis teaches retail anything it is that the disruptors, the fast movers and the innovators will continue to be the winners: and this includes creative sourcing.


For a limited time Virtualstock is offering 6 months free access to its web-based dropship platform for qualifying SMEs. For more details see the website or send an email to

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