I lost my work at 64 and became a low-paid delivery driver. It made me realize our unrealistic expectations are why we call it a supply chain ‘crisis.’

Man in glasses and high-vis jacket pictured with several green delivery crates
Richard Tierney working as a delivery driver. Courtesy of Richard Tierney
  • Richard Tierney, 66, lost all his work in events when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year.
  • Needing money, he became a low-paid supermarket delivery driver.
  • This is what he learned about the supply-chain crisis that developed during the pandemic.

When the UK entered its first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, all my work creating content for events and coaching speakers stopped overnight.

I needed to replace the cash flow, and I wanted to do something. I was also feeling antibody-charged, having contracted COVID-19 early on.

I had experience driving vans from my early work in events, traveling around the country setting up and dismantling equipment.

Supermarkets were also desperate, having radically increased their online offering. I applied and had to prove I could drive through small towns and through rural villages with a 15-minute van driving test.

Ten days after applying, I became a poorly paid delivery driver for UK supermarket chain Tesco in the Cotswolds, in the west of England.

It was the first time since the 1970s I’d worked as anything but a self-employed events producer.

I enjoyed the exercise and felt I was doing something useful. The gratitude from housebound customers was palpable. I was surprised to get cash tips. I’d never thought to tip for a supermarket delivery.

I had applied to other companies, but the supermarkets seemed the best bet. We had fewer drops, though the loads were bigger.

I was contracted for five four-hour shifts a week, but demand was so high I was constantly asked to work extra. In a typical week I would usually work eight or 10. A four-hour shift took me, in reality, about 5 1/2 hours.

I was surprised how small the “warehouse” area at the back of the supermarket was. A big supermarket took a delivery every 30 minutes.

Drivers like me loaded up our small vans, carrying crates of groceries to the homes of the store’s online customers.

Every time I returned, the contents of the warehouse were different – moved onto the shop floor by an army of stackers and pickers paid even less than the 10 pounds (about $US13.37 ($AU18)) per hour I was earning. The store has no control over what arrives. Inventory is sent based on recent sales.

With offices and restaurants shut, more calories were now being bought in supermarkets. The supply chain responded very quickly; equilibrium was restored after a few weeks of shortages.

We all learned to be a bit more grateful. The sheer amount of stuff moving through each shop is enormous. During lockdown it became breathtaking. Home delivery’s share of the overall business almost doubled.

I measured each shift by the number of drops to each customer. Between 12 and 18 was normal in a four-hour shift. The more experienced drivers told me to measure by weight, a much better metric as each load had to be lifted twice, once into the van at the beginning, once more to the customers’ homes.

The sheer weight I had to shift took its toll on my body.

Frequently I would be delivering and one of our competitors’ vans would be in the same street. We became friendly, even helping each other out a couple of times.

One day, late in 2020, I saw the warehouse was half filled with toilet paper. When I returned it was still there. This was unusual. The store manager later told me there had been a rumor of another toilet paper shortage, like the one that gripped Britain early in the first lockdown earlier that year.

This time, management’s solution was to ensure the aisle was rammed with toilet paper at all times. Customers didn’t see a shortage so didn’t panic-buy. It’s easy to find some empty shelves near closing time. The big restock would happen overnight.

After lockdown, I delivered to one woman who was still isolating as she was vulnerable. She was delighted to have a conversation with me, even while social distancing. I was the first person she’d seen in two weeks, and she had not been outside her house for 18 months.

I started to tell her about the products that were out of stock and had to be substituted, and she replied with such joy: “I don’t care. I can’t remember what I ordered anyway, and I’ll cook whatever you’ve given me.”

Eventually, virtual events restarted and my normal career was able to resume, meaning I could leave deliveries behind. It was strange returning to much-better-paid work online for a couple of hours in the day, then driving for minimum wage in the evening.

I had typically earned 800 pounds (about $US1,071 ($AU1,455)) per month driving and 200 pounds (about $US267 ($AU363)) per hour from returning to my “real” job. The crossover period didn’t last long.

It seemed anyone with a hobby horse has claimed the supply-chain crisis was caused by the thing they were upset about. In the UK it was blamed on Brexit; the pandemic was certainly a factor; the unions were blamed, as license applications for truck drivers were apparently held up by a dispute. Everyone feels free to blame the government, though I’m unsure what they could have done.

The supply chain is adapting, as it always has. The pandemic accelerated the shift to online shopping that was already in progress. Some things are taking longer to clear, but clear they will. Our obsession with an enormous variety that is always available has grown.

We demand more and more availability when we really just want something to eat.

The crisis isn’t with our supply chain; it’s to do with the expectation of extremely fast delivery it’s given us.