Never mind Ukraine, the energy and cost of living crisis and the national political paralysis in the UK – a real crisis has hit the headlines. The shops are running out of Mars Bars! I spent the first nine years of my post-Uni career at Mars in Slough. It was a great firm, and still is, I believe. But it seems hard to accept the official company line that “high levels of demand” is the cause of these shortages.
Various press reports suggest that many supermarkets and wholesalers are out of Mars Bars, with some shortages reported for other products from Mars Confectionery such as Snickers and Twix. (Personally, when I had a free choice every morning in the office, I chose Twix over Mars, and actually also preferred Revels, Topic, Maltesers and of course the finest confectionery product ever invented – Plain Bounty).
Looking at this issue, it’s worth understanding some of the core principles of Mars and indeed the confectionery industry. Most purchases of Mars Bars are “impulse”. Now things have changed a bit over the last 30 years, with a much higher percentage of products bought from supermarkets rather than corner shops, newsagents and sweet shops (remember those?) But even supermarket multipacks are quite likely to be the sort of item that isn’t necessarily on the shopping list, but just gets picked up on impulse.
Other items are “demand” items – customers demand them and will go to another shop if they can’t find it in their usual place. Milk, tea bags, vegetables, maybe beer these days… So if you are selling an impulse item, “availability” is the whole basis of your sales strategy. Forrest Mars Senior (now deceased) was obsessed with getting Mars products on sale and prominently displayed in every possible location where a customer might feel a bit peckish, or fancy a treat. He will be turning in his grave at these stories of out-of-stock products in major retailers. So what has caused the problem?
I think we can rule out the demand factor, whatever the firm is saying. Confectionery sales are correlated with temperature in the sense that heat reduces demand quite significantly. We’ve had the hottest summer ever in the UK. So although it has cooled down a little in the last week or two, I just don’t buy the claim that somehow consumer demand has overwhelmed the Mars factory. So what else could it be?
Well, it could still be temperature related. Chocolate is very temperature-sensitive stuff, as you will know if you’ve ever left a Mars Bar in your car, handbag or jacket pocket on a hot day! Not pleasant… It may be that the super-hot temperatures we have seen has somehow disrupted production. I seem to remember the Chocolate Room (yes, that is a real thing in the Mars factory) could overheat at times. Perhaps production was reduced in July because of the 40C temperatures and that is feeding through to the shops now? Or maybe finished stock got heat damaged?
Another possibility is supply chain issues – a lack of raw materials, or perhaps even packaging (I speak as the ex-Head of Packaging Buying in Slough). But I suspect that we would have seen more general industry issues if this were the case. Mars has always been one of the best firms in the sector in terms of procurement, and has followed a more “partnership” approach than many competitors. That is in part because of “mutuality” – one of the famous Five Principles of Mars.
It means that everyone who interacts with the firm should benefit from it and whilst we occasionally joked about that when we were in tough supplier negotiations, basically it did matter. So I find it hard to believe that Mars would be finding the supply chain more difficult than Cadburys, Nestle or Hershey. However, Hershey has also warned of shortages, so maybe there is something in this hypothesis.
The critical nature of raw materials also means that if there were shortages, I would expect Mars to pay more than most would to preserve supply. As well as the availability and impulse issue above, Mars would be terrified that a 200-Bars-a-year customer might try Cadbury’s Star Bar in the absence of their favourite and think “oh that’s nice”. OK, that’s unlikely as Star Bar is a disgusting “rework product” – maybe I’ll explain that another day. But you get the point.
Could it be staff sickness or shortages? I doubt it. The factory is highly automated now and Mars pays well above the norm so it seems unlikely. Equipment breakdown? Again, Mars is very smart, has top engineers – I just can’t imagine that. Perhaps a commercial dispute with the supermarkets is the issue, as we saw recently with Tesco versus Heinz and Mars Petcare (Whiskas etc). Well, none of the retailers have said anything and the fact that the wholesale channel is also reporting difficulties seems to suggest this isn’t the case.
The only other possibility I can think of is some quality problem with a large batch of product. Whilst Mars QA and testing is second to none, it is always possible that a dodgy batch of skimmed milk or freeze-dried albumen powder got into the production process somehow. If it was only discovered some days or weeks later, maybe product had to be scrapped? It seems unlikely but it is possible.
Anyway, someone must know. Drop me a confidential note if you know more. In the meantime, Cadburys Caramel, Rowntree’s Toffee Crisp, and Kit Kat (preferably plain chocolate) are the substitutes of choice.