I still remember the excitement in my dad's voice. It was the early 1970's and he was telling me you could now buy a new car "off the floor".
You see, until that moment, you could wander into a car showroom — which usually only had a couple of cars inside — and check out the car of your dreams. But you couldn't drive it away, even if you wanted to and could afford to. Import restrictions and the modus operandi of the day saw to it that things wouldn't happen that quickly.
So you had to order it, and wait. Sometimes for months.
Once global economics and trade practices moved on, things changed. Importers and dealers could carry stock and therefore the opportunity came for consumers to buy a new car "off the floor" and drive it away then and there.
I'm reminded of this story because of events of the past few weeks. The holiday period is one of the few times in the year that I buy stuff. Like many of us, my day-to-day life doesn't allow much time for shopping.
As a result, I tend to accumulate some ideas about the things that I need or want and typically spend some time over the holidays working through my list.
So, during the holidays I went shopping as usual. Not for anything as substantial as a car, I might add. But for golf shoes, a new bike, a part for my mountain bike, a surfboard and a TV for my mum. While I was at it, I dropped my phone onto a tile floor, so a new smartphone appeared on the shopping list too.
And guess what I discovered? Most of the things I was looking for were out of stock. Not available. In most cases the retailers couldn't even tell me when my targeted purchase might arrive. Most retailers tried to squeeze me into other options, and to be fair, there were a few of those. But not the makes or models that I had researched and wanted.
Many of us will have struck this situation over the past few months. And it's not normal.
Unlike previous generations, we have become used to deciding we want to buy a product, going out and buying it, and taking delivery immediately.
However, a combination of the well-documented global shipping and port delays, and the less obvious Covid-enforced factory closures in the world's manufacturing capitals of China, Korea, Japan and Italy (to name a few), have impacted both manufacturing and shipping. As a result, the goods we import are no longer guaranteed to be as available.
And the shopping experience we typically enjoy has changed for the worse.
I often hear people talking about "the new normal". In doing so, they are referring to the impact of Covid on our freedoms such as travel, tourism, eating out, visiting friends and attending large events.
But another element of the "new normal" that many of us (myself included) hadn't anticipated is the inability to access the goods and services we usually take for granted.
This week I heard of a new car dealer so desperate for inventory that he has engaged a parallel importing middleman to help keep his yard full.
Others I have spoken to are worried. As business seeks to recover from the Covid-enforced interruptions of the past 10 months, many are now facing the prospect of not having enough product to sell. Having spoken to a couple of importers and distributors, I know that they are tearing their hair out too.
Without picking on industries, I'm told that some are not expecting orders to arrive until August at the earliest. For others, eight to 12 weeks appears to be a usual response. Yet again, we are going to have to ask business to adapt and to come up with new ways of doing things.
Like the car dealer, many are looking at parallel importing to help them get by. It seems that other countries with bigger markets are a priority for manufacturers and they can get more product than we can. That product can become available here if you have the right networks. And a downstream effect, a resultant robust second hand market, will also enable some operators to source product and thereby keep their businesses afloat.
And then there is the customer. How do we keep them happy when they have become so used to having what they want, when they want it? The communication will have to be better than my recent experiences of attempts to explain the situation.
The best option? Tell the customer the truth, keep them informed every step of the way and ultimately deliver what and when you promise. Now is the opportunity to practise turning around a disappointed customer with good conversations and great service.
As for my shopping list? They found me a new bike in Australia — the last one in my size — and it was delivered in five days. The golf shoes took three weeks but arrived eventually. They can't tell me when the new phone I want will be available but the last person I spoke to suggested approximately eight weeks. Mountain bike parts are also on the never-never list. And my mum's new TV is a work in progress too.
I guess we'll have to learn to be patient. After all, it's just the "new normal".
- Bruce Cotterill is a company director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book, "The Best Leaders Don't Shout". www.brucecotterill.com.