Stonemanor has been supplying British delicacies and favourite foodstuffs to anglophone and cosmopolitan Belgian consumers since the early 1980s. Over the years, the company has grown within its flagship store in Everberg, and also through its newer outlet in Sint-Genesius-Rode, to bring its customers the very best of British produce. But recently, Stonemanor has been forced to temporarily close due to Brexit-related supply issues. Now as supplies are gradually returning, we caught up with store manager Ryan Pearce to see how Brexit has affected the store and what the future holds.
January and February 2021 have been difficult months for the business. Despite extensive preparations, a wave of unexpected logistics issues has hit supply chains out of the UK in the New Year. Due to low stocks, on the weekend of 6 and 7 February the two Stonemanor stores were forced to temporarily close for the first time in their 39-year history and a further week-long closure will end today (26 February). But we can reveal that the first significant deliveries of 2021 have now arrived at the ‘manor’ and shelves and fridges have been partially refilled.
The store worked to stockpile before Christmas with three or four major deliveries a week rather than the usual two, but the plans were subverted by higher than anticipated sales. “We had a very good run up to Christmas,” says Ryan. “Which was good for the business, but not so good for our stockpiling plan. As fast as we were filling the shelves, they were emptying!”
Fortunately, the week after Christmas two full deliveries temporarily refilled shelves and stock room reserves. Ryan and the Stonemanor team had anticipated a possible two week delay due to the end of the Brexit transition, but added delays again resulted in reducing stock levels as January turned into February.
Now, at last, the store has received deliveries from some smaller suppliers, including sausages and bacon, cheese and tea, and has arranged to receive one full truck a week from Ireland. The first full Irish shipment will be arriving early next week – it is setting off today from the Emerald Isle.
“This arrangement will continue until at least our usual UK suppliers are able to confidently export to the EU again,” explains Tom.
What was the problem?
Essentially the issue is new paperwork and understanding the needs of import and export systems now the UK is a third country outside the EU single market and custom union. Normally, Stonemanor works with Ramsden International as their main logistics partner – a company with decades of experience in international food supply.
“We placed orders for delivery in the first week of January with Ramsden and they were confident that deliveries would be made,” says Ryan. However, despite assurances from UK government authorities, issued to Ramsdens and other logistics firms on Christmas Day, that the use of meursing codes (used to determine which commodity code and how much duty is applicable) would not be required to enable export, in practise in the New Year it turned out they were needed.
With up to 22,000 product lines on the shelves of the stores, full itemisation and correct customs coding of all the items in a large, mixed consignment is not a trivial matter. And everything must be double-checked and 110% correct before orders can be released to avoid delays, or worse, rejection during border checks.
There has been a huge learning curve for Ramsden and Stonemanor. The store also runs its own truck alongside the Ramsden service for some items. “We have now set up our own master file of commodity codes,” says Ryan. “Once we have got all products finalised and validated then the supply issues should ease.”
Obviously, the delay and extra paperwork has a cost, and this is yet to be fully quantified. In addition, in the short term there may be changes to the stores offer. “Waitrose products will be limited for a while,” explains Ryan. “We use our own truck for them but are focusing on getting the main Ramsden supply line right first.”
Importing chilled meat products is also now problematic from the UK. So where are we to get our British bangers? “We are still able to import frozen sausages,” says Ryan. “But not chilled. There are thoughts that some sausage recipes – like a Cumberland with a certain herb content – could make it through the import regulations. We are hoping this will be an opportunity for UK producers to innovate.” Or alternatively, at the moment, it is an opportunity for Irish suppliers to step in.
While we wait for the new model UK Export Sausage some other services traditionally offered by Stonemanor will need to be re-evaluated once the basic logistics for groceries are in place.
The UK post service has been an extremely popular free service run by Stonemanor. “We sell British stamps and have provided a free service to take postal items back to UK,” says Ryan. “But that service is currently suspended due to the uncertainty over the transport links.” And the long-term future of the service could be problematic too, due to the need to know the customs status – and therefore have correct declarations and paperwork – for any post taken back to the UK. “We will need to see what we can do here,” says Ryan. “Obviously, we don’t want our trucks being turned back because of a post item that doesn’t have the right documentation.”
Similarly, the store sells its magazines on a sale or return basis, but that requires regular deliveries to ensure timely return. In addition, the Argos catalogue service is currently suspended while the logistics are being sorted.
Ryan’s full focus now is on getting the food side of the business back on track with regular predictable deliveries. “We will need to scrutinise how we operate the Argos service and re-evaluate before, hopefully, relaunching it. The food side of the supply chain now looks promising with the trucks moving. We hope to soon return to business as near our previous normal as possible,” he concludes.
For the latest information on the supply situation, visit the Stonemanor website or Facebook page.