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November 02, 2022

Coast to coast, storms-of-the-century have bruised the produce chain twice in the last year.  


In late September 2022, we had Hurricane Fiona rip through many communities in Atlantic Canada. I am sure you have seen the images on the news of homes being swept out to sea and hundreds of thousands of people with no power for days. In November 2021, British Columbia suffered one of Canada's largest flooding disasters when the Nooksack River overflowed, breached its dyke and sent floodwater to Sumas Prairie near Abbotsford.


Every region of the country has faced severe weather that reduces suppliers’ ability to service customers. These damaging weather events are in the news as the crisis is unfolding, but only for a short period. The impact to local residents and producers can continue for days and weeks. Some dairy farmers in Prince Edward Island, for example, have lost barns and silos that will take months to re-build.


When these generational storms are forecasted -- which seem to be happening every year -- it is an opportunity to reinforce your relationships with your customers. You have to prepare your own business and do what is right for your employees. You should also consider what needs to be done to take care of your customers.


Before the weather event


Many of your customers could be located in different regions and they may or may not be aware of the forecast. If we use Hurricane Fiona as an example, people in Atlantic Canada were probably much more aware of the impending storm than people in other regions of Canada. When you start to see the forecasts, it is always good to let your buyers and merchandisers know there is something on the horizon. Weather forecasting is not a perfect science, but when it is clear your business and theirs will be impacted, it is a good idea to communicate with your customers.


It is good to tell them something is happening, but it is better to be proactive in telling them what are you doing to prepare.. Examples of this could be packing orders in advance, in case you lose power or even asking if they want orders moved ahead. Some retailers in Atlantic Canada appreciated suppliers who could move extra product to Newfoundland in advance of the storm. Ferry service is often interrupted, so if extra product is shipped, out of stocks are less likely.


If your buyers are located in other parts of the country, they might not be aware of the regional geography. In Atlantic Canada, the bridge to Prince Edward Island and the narrow stretch of highway between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia --called the Tantramar Marsh -- can be closed with high winds. Moving product in advance across these two potential choke points can reduce issues. Every region of the country has unique challenges to moving product.


Communicate with your logistics partners to see what they have planned. They have to protect their equipment and employees so they might be changing routes or schedules. This might benefit you or hurt you, but you and your customers need to be aware.


Check order history during similar events from the past. Your customer cannot check all 35,000 SKUs, but you can check your items. This is even more important for perishable items. In the case of Hurricane Fiona, people in some places lost all of the food in their fridge and freezer. This might reduce short- term demand because they have no power, but then once it comes back they will need to replace items. Any help you can give the buyers is usually appreciated.


Let your customers know what you are doing in your business to prepare. If I think back to my days at Loblaw, it was good when I could share what our suppliers were doing to protect the product we were expecting and reduce the disruptions. I did not take credit for it, but it was more of a partnership and they like some insights into what you are doing.


Let them know you will communicate during the storm. If they do not hear from you, that is a message to them you have no power and/or Internet. You do not want them to reach out and get no answer, because they might assume you are focused on something else.


During the weather event


If the weather event is really bad, there is not much you can do while the storm is happening. If you do still have power and Internet, you can send them a brief update. Send them a picture or two if you can.


Be realistic. They are trying to make plans so the more accurate you are the better.


Once you can assess the damage and your situation, give them an update. Power outages and damage to buildings and equipment are beyond your control. Let them know, if you can, what your business is facing in the upcoming days. Will you be able to ship product if needed? Also, you can let them know about any of the issues we mentioned previously such as a bridge closure to PEI. They might not be aware.


After the weather event


Once you do have a chance to assess the state of your business, send them an update with photos, if possible. Some challenges might be short term and others might be more long term. An example would be in PEI where some potato packers suffered barn damage. This will not impact shipments immediately, but it is a hurdle for producers and processors to overcome. Often the industry will come together to help each other out and these are the types of things retailers do want to hear about. It is knowledge about the value chain.


Once you know your capabilities, try to understand what the customers need. They will have their own issues in the market such as power outages or reduced road access. If they have stores closed, they might want to reduce orders in the short term, then increase them once stores are re-opened and consumers get power back.


Good relationships are dependent on good communication. Your commitment to keep your customers informed before, during and after these weather events can improve your customer’s impression of your business. You might not see an increase on the next order. In fact it might get cut in half but in the long term, you will see a payback. We can’t change the weather but we can control how we respond and your customers will appreciate your focus on their business while doing what you need to for your business.

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Submitted by Peter Chapman on 2 November 2022