As fuel pumps remain dry, UK’s Johnson says plans in place for supply chains

By Michael Holden, Kylie MacLellan and Costas Pitas

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought on Wednesday to quell public fears as panic-buying left fuel pumps dry across major cities, saying the government was making preparations to ensure supply chains were ready for the run-up to Christmas.

Johnson said the situation at gas stations was improving, though in many regions, hundreds of forecourts remained closed and motorists spent hours hunting for fuel or sat snarled in queues waiting to fill their tanks.

“We now are starting to see the situation improve. We are hearing from industry that supplies are coming back onto the forecourt in the normal way and I would just really urge everybody to go about their business in the normal way,” Johnson said in televised remarks.

Johnson’s comments were his first since the fuel supply problems began at the end of last week when oil companies reported difficulty transporting petrol and diesel from refineries to filling stations.

Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer accused him and the government of lurching from “crisis to crisis”.

There have been growing calls for doctors, nurses and other essential workers to be given priority in filling their cars to keep hospitals and social care services running, but Johnson said it would be better if “we stabilize it in the normal way”.

SUPPLY CHAINS

An air of chaos has gripped Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy, in recent weeks as a shortage of truck drivers strained supply chains and a spike in European wholesale natural gas prices tipped energy companies into bankruptcy.

The post-Brexit dearth of truckers has been exacerbated by a halt to truck-driving-license testing during COVID lockdowns as well as people leaving the haulage industry.

It has sown chaos through supply chains and raised the specter of widespread shortages, price increases ahead of Christmas, and a prolonged rise in inflation.

“What we want to do is make sure that we have all the preparations necessary to get through until Christmas and beyond, not just in supplying the petrol stations but all parts of our supply chain,” Johnson said.

To tackle the shortage of drivers, the government has been forced to bring in measures it had previously ruled out, such as issuing temporary visas to 5,000 foreign drivers.

It has also put a limited number of military tanker drivers on standby to be deployed to deliver fuel if necessary.

Haulers, petrol stations and retailers say there are no quick fixes as the shortfall of truck drivers – estimated at about 100,000 – is so acute, and because transporting fuel demands additional training and licensing.

Ministers want businesses to pay more and offer truckers better conditions, rather than count on cheap foreign labor.

“What I don’t think people in this country want to do is fix all our problems with uncontrolled immigration again,” Johnson said. “We tried that for a long time… and in the end people could see it was leading to a low-wage, low-skill approach.”

‘CRAZY’

Industry groups said the worst of the fuel shortages seemed to be in London, the southeast and other English cities. Fights have broken out at some forecourts as drivers jostled for fuel and pictures on social media showed some people filling up old water bottles with fuel.

“I can’t believe it – it’s crazy,” said David Scade, a 33-year-old delivery driver who drove for hours searching for fuel in London. “They keep saying there is no shortage but I suppose everyone is panicking now.”

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents independent fuel retailers who account for 65% of all the 8,380 UK forecourts, said there were signs the crisis was abating.

“We have conducted a survey of our members this morning and only 37% of forecourts have reported being out of fuel today,” said Gordon Balmer, executive director of the PRA, which had previously reported up to 90% of stations had problems.

“With regular restocks taking place, this percentage is likely to improve further over the next 24 hours.”

Retailers, truck drivers and logistics companies have warned that prices for everything from energy to Christmas gifts will have to rise because of the shortage of truck drivers.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) urged the government to broaden the size and scope of its temporary visa scheme.

“It will take many months before there are enough new British drivers to cover the shortfall,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC.

European drivers have also indicated they would not take up the visa offer, which only lasts until Dec. 24. Some Polish haulers said the offer was laughable and the German freight industry said drivers who left after Brexit would not go back.

(Additional reporting by Ben Makori, James Davey, and Joice Alves in London and Rene Wagner in Berlin; Writing by Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Alistair Bell, Philippa Fletcher, Nick Macfie and Gareth Jones)

U.S. retailers scramble to stock shelves as kids head back to school

By Lisa Baertlein and Joyce Philippe

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) -At Stationery and Toy World, a family-owned shop in New York’s Upper West Side, manager Gary Rowe is having difficulty getting all the pens and folders he ordered for the important back-to-school season.

His usual vendors have low stocks of Pilot’s erasable FriXion pens and Paper Mate Flair marker pens – and prices are high on stationery and other in-demand school supplies.

And Rowe is not alone, retailers are navigating a storm of challenges – higher production costs, cargo delays from China and other Asian countries, and sky-high shipping rates – as they gear up for the industry’s second-biggest selling season.

“I’m hoping that when everything catches up, we get more stock,” Rowe said at his store packed wall-to-wall with a colorful array of pens and markers. “Business has been really slow.”

After a year of keeping their kids at home, parents are eager for classes to start again.

Stimulus checks and advance child tax credits from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration are expected to boost sales of back-to-school merchandise, especially shoes and clothing, following last year’s outlays on laptops, headphones and other equipment for remote learning. The National Retail Federation expects total back-to-school spending to rise 6.4% to $108.1 billion this year. Average spending for all age groups is forecast to be $2,049, up 10.8%.

But following retailers’ moves to prune inventories, shoppers may find fewer discounts, smaller markdowns and less merchandise in stores. Retailers “just don’t know how much to stock,” said Stacy DeBroff, founder of marketing data firm Influence Central, which works with retailers such as JCPenney, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Skechers. “There continues to be lingering supply-side issues because manufacturing was done abroad,” DeBroff said. JCPenney, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Skechers declined to comment on inventory.

Some – most likely bigger retailers – will have stored away backpacks and other products from last year that did not sell, said Matt Kramer, KPMG’s consumer and retail national sector leader. “I think they’re being very careful about giving further discounts as their inventory starts to dwindle,” Kramer said.

Macy’s worked to bring in denim clothes, school uniforms and small electronics, Chief Financial Officer Adrian Mitchell said at a recent investor conference. “We believe it’s better to potentially lose a sale due to the lack of supply than to over buy and have markdown merchandise at higher rates,” Mitchell said.

Target started putting backpacks on its sales floors much earlier this year, around the end of May, a month or more earlier than usual, data firm StyleSage said. Target told Reuters the introduction was inline with other years, and that it is working with partners to manage and move inventory faster than ever.

“We’re still moving backpacks and crayons,” said Brett Rose, chief executive officer at United National Consumer Suppliers, a wholesale distributor whose retail clients include Walmart’s Sam’s Club, Amazon and Five Below.

Rose said he is usually finished bringing such products in by May or June – at the latest.

During the second quarter, retailers imported lower volumes of popular back-to-school items compared with the same period in 2019, before the pandemic, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence’s trade data firm Panjiva. For instance, retailers’ imports of backpacks, up 9.8% versus the second quarter of 2020, were 15.2% lower than the same period in 2019, Panjiva said. Imports of kids’ shoes and clothing, up 64.4% versus 2020, were 12.6% below the amount imported during the same period in 2019.

Overall, retailers so far have marked down a smaller proportion of backpacks, and discounts are smaller on average, according to the data firm StyleSage. It sees similar patterns in other clothing categories.

Experts say back-to-school may offer a preview of what to expect at Christmastime as retailers pare offerings to limit risk.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein and Joyce Philippe; Additional reporting by Richa Naidu in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Steve Orlofsky)

Factbox: Back to pubs, gyms and movies: plotting the return to normal

(Reuters) – As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout gains momentum, many countries are planning a gradual return to normal, opening borders and letting people back into restaurants, shops and sports venues after more than a year of on-off lockdowns.

Here are some of their plans, in alphabetical order:

BRITAIN

Britain expects to fully reopen pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and other hospitality venues on July 19.

Non-essential retailers in England reopened on April 12 along with pubs and restaurants operating outdoors. Indoor hospitality, cinemas, theatres and sports halls reopened on May 17 with capacity restrictions. Britain also resumed international travel, with quarantine rules still in place for most arrivals.

CANADA

Canadians and permanent residents who have received two vaccination doses will be exempt from quarantine when returning to the country from July 5.

COLOMBIA

Colombia on June 3 approved reopening most large events like concerts and sports matches with 25% capacity for cities where intensive care units occupancy rates are below 85%.

From July 15, international travelers no longer need to present a negative PCR test and in-person classes will resume for pre-school children to university students.

FRANCE

France ended a national night-time curfew on June 20, 10 days earlier than initially scheduled, while face masks will soon no longer be required outdoors.

Nightclubs can re-open from July 9.

On June 9, France fully reopened its cafes, bars, and restaurants. Sports halls, spas, swimming pools, and casinos also resumed operation.

Shops, museums, cinemas and theatres reopened on May 19.

GERMANY

Germany eased restrictions on those fully vaccinated or recovered from the virus from May 9, lifting curfews and quarantine rules as well as the obligation to provide a negative test result to visit a hairdresser, a zoo or to go shopping.

Since May 12, travelers have been able to enter the country without the need to quarantine, except those arriving from risk areas.

General travel warning for risk regions that have a seven-day coronavirus incidence of below 200 will be lifted starting July 1.

Germany is on target for outdoor concerts this summer, with social distancing and COVID-19 testing for attendees, and fans should be back at soccer matches in August.

A rule which forces companies to allow working from home will be lifted on June 30.

INDIA

On June 14, all New Delhi’s shops and malls re-opened although bars, gyms, salons, cinemas and parks remain shut.

Federally protected monuments opened to tourists on June 16.

Some businesses in Tamil Nadu were allowed to bring back 50% of employees and salons and liquor shops reopened. Bus services resumed on June 21.

In Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka state, authorities allowed the partial reopening of businesses, though strict night and weekend curfews remained in place.

From June 7, the state of Maharashtra allowed malls, movie theatres, restaurants and offices to open regularly in districts where the positivity rate has fallen below 5%.

ISRAEL

Israel reopened borders to tourists on May 23. Under a pilot program, it gave the green light to visits by 20 groups of between five and 30 tourists from countries including the United States, Britain and Germany. It hopes to let individual tourists in from July.

From June 15, citizens may stop wearing masks indoors, except for unvaccinated patients or staff in medical facilities, people en route to quarantine, and passengers on commercial flights.

ITALY

Italian coffee bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres partially reopened in most regions on April 26. Indoor service at restaurants resumed from June 1.

Italy lifted quarantine restrictions for travelers arriving from European and Schengen countries, as well as Britain and Israel, from May 15.

A nightly curfew was scrapped from June 21 and wearing masks outdoors will not be mandatory from June 28.

JAPAN

Japan eased curbs in nine prefectures including Tokyo from June 20, ahead of the Summer Olympics due to start in late July. Bars and restaurants now can serve alcohol until 7 p.m., but restaurants are still asked to shut by 8 p.m. Certain measures such as spectator limits at major events remain in place.

NETHERLANDS

Most group size limits will be lifted from June 26, as long as people can keep at least 1.5 meters apart. People will not be required to wear face masks anywhere except for public transport and airports, where distancing is not possible.

POLAND

Poland reopened shopping centers, hotels, restaurants cinemas, theatres and concert halls in May. Indoor dining, indoor sports facilities and swimming pools reopened on May 28.

Large indoor events with up to 50 people were allowed from May 28, a number that was tripled on June 6.

From June 13, churches can be filled up to 50% of capacity. Limits for concerts and sports events will be raised from June 26 to 50% of seats, while hotels can be filled to up to 75% capacity.

People who have been vaccinated are not counted in the capacity limits.

QATAR

From May 28, Qatar allowed leisure, education centers, restaurants, gyms, pools and salons to operate at limited capacity, but bans on weddings, conferences and exhibitions remain in place.

Local and international sporting events can take place with fully vaccinated fans in open-space venues at 30% capacity.

SINGAPORE

Singapore allowed dining at restaurants to resume from June 21, though it limits diners to groups of two. Gyms and fitness studios resumed indoor exercise for groups of up to two people.

SOUTH KOREA

From June 14, South Korea allows up to 4,000 people to attend concerts and other cultural shows. Sports stadiums can operate at 30% to 50% capacity, depending on the districts.

From July 1, fully vaccinated overseas visitors can apply for exemptions from mandatory two-week quarantine if they are visiting family or travelling for the purpose of business, academic or public interest.

Masks will no longer be required outdoors from July.

SPAIN

Curfews were lifted across most of Spain on May 9. From May 24, it allowed travel from low-risk non-EU countries without a negative PCR test. From June 7, vaccinated people from anywhere in the world could enter.

The country will lift a blanket obligation to wear masks outdoors from June 26.

THAILAND

Thailand said on June 16 it aims to fully reopen to visitors within 120 days. Some tourism centers will resume earlier, starting with a pilot reopening from July 1 on its most popular island, Phuket.

TURKEY

Sunday lockdowns and weekday curfews, as well as public transport restrictions, will be lifted on July 1. Music events, including concerts, will then be allowed until midnight.

UNITED STATES

On May 3, New York City allowed drinking at an indoor bar for the first time in months, days after Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city should reopen in full on July 1.

On June 15, the state of New York lifted all state-mandated restrictions, including capacity limits of 50% for retailers and 33% for gyms. Mitigation measures are still required in public transit and healthcare settings.

New York joined California, where most remaining crowd-capacity limits and physical distancing requirements were also lifted on June 15.

New York City and Los Angeles plan to fully reopen schools from September.

Chicago and Illinois fully reopened on June 11.

The states of New Jersey and Connecticut lifted most capacity restrictions on businesses, including retail stores, food services and gyms, on May 19.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on May 3 signed an executive order to end all local emergency measures.

(Compiled by Vladimir Sadykov, Dagmarah Mackos and Federica Urso; Editing by Milla Nissi and Gareth Jones)