Benjamin Whitely went to a Safeway supermarket in Washington, DC on Tuesday to pick up a few items for dinner. But he was disappointed to find the sterile crisper bins and a sparse selection of turkey, chicken, and milk.
“Looks like I missed it all,” said Whitely, 67. “I’m going to have to look for stuff now. “
Shortages in U.S. grocery stores have worsened in recent weeks as new problems – like the fast-spreading omicron variant and extreme weather conditions – have accumulated in supply chain struggles and labor shortages. work that has plagued retailers since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Shortages are widespread, affecting produce and meat as well as packaged goods such as grains. And they are being reported all over the country. American grocery stores typically have 5-10% of their items out of stock at any given time; Right now, that downtime hovers around 15%, according to Consumer Brands Association president and CEO Geoff Freeman.
Part of the scarcity that consumers are seeing on store shelves is due to pandemic trends that have never abated – and are being exacerbated by the omicron. Americans eat at home more than before, especially since offices and some schools remain closed.
The average American household spent $ 144 a week on groceries last year, according to IMF, a trade organization for grocery stores and food producers. That was down from a high of $ 161 in 2020, but still well above the $ 113.50 households spent in 2019.
A deficit of truck drivers that started to grow before the pandemic also remains a problem. The American trucking associations said in October that the United States is short of about 80,000 drivers, a historic high.
And shipping remains delayed, affecting everything from imported food to overseas printed packaging.
Retailers and food producers have been adjusting to these realities since early 2020, when panic buying at the start of the pandemic brought the industry down. Many retailers keep more supplies on hand, like toilet paper, for example, to avoid acute shortages.
“Everyone in the supply chain ecosystem has come to a point where they have this playbook and they are able to navigate this basic level of challenges,” said Jessica Dankert, vice president of supply chain to the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade group.
Usually the system works; Dankert notes that bare shelves have been a rare occurrence over the past 20 months. It’s just that additional complications have piled up on that baseline for now, she said.
As with staff in hospitals, schools and offices, the recent increase in COVID-19 cases has taken its toll on food production lines. Sean Connolly, president and CEO of Conagra Brands, which makes Birds Eye frozen vegetables, Slim Jim meat snacks and other products, told investors last week that supplies from the company’s U.S. factories will be restricted for at least the next month due to a virus. related absences.
Workers’ illness is also having an impact on grocery stores. Stew Leonard Jr. is president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s, a supermarket chain that operates stores in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Last week, 8% of its workers – around 200 people – were either sick or in quarantine. Usually the level of absenteeism is more like 2%.
One store bakery had so many sick people that it dropped some of its usual items, like apple crumb cake. Leonard says meat and fruit and vegetable suppliers have told him they are also facing omicron-related worker shortages.
Still, Leonard says he usually receives shipments on time and believes the worst of the pandemic may be over.
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Weather events, from snowstorms in the northeast to wildfires in Colorado, have also impacted product availability and caused some buyers to source more than usual, exacerbating the problems of supply caused by the pandemic.
Lisa DeLima, a spokesperson for Mom’s Organic Market, an independent grocer based in the mid-Atlantic region, said the company’s stores had no produce to stock last weekend because conditions winter weather prevented trucks from traveling from Pennsylvania to Washington.
This bottleneck has since been resolved, DeLima said. In her opinion, the intermittent shortage of some items that buyers are now seeing is nothing compared to the more chronic shortages at the start of the pandemic.
“People don’t have to panic to buy,” she said. “There are plenty of products to be had. It’s just a little longer to get from point A to point B.
Experts are divided on how long grocery shopping can sometimes feel like a scavenger hunt.
Dankert believes this is a setback and that the country will soon return to more normal patterns, despite persistent supply chain problems and labor shortages.
“You’re not going to see long-term product failures, just sporadic, isolated incidents – that window where it takes a minute for the supply chain to catch up,” she said.
But others are not so optimistic.
Freeman, of the Consumer Brands Association, said disruption over omicron could spread as the variant takes hold of the Midwest, where many large packaged food companies like Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc. . have activities.
Freeman believes the federal government should do a better job of ensuring essential food workers have access to testing. He also wants there to be uniform rules for things like quarantine procedures for vaccinated workers; Right now, he said, businesses face a patchwork of local regulations.
“I think, as we’ve seen before, it fades as each wave fades. But the question is, do we have to be at the whims of the virus, or can we produce the amount of testing we need? Freeman said.
In the longer term, grocery stores and food companies may take some time to understand the buying patterns of emerging customers as the pandemic recedes, said Doug Baker, vice president of industrial relations for the association of IMF food industry.
“We have gone from a just-in-time inventory system to unprecedented demand on top of unprecedented demand,” he said. “We’re going to be playing around with this whole inventory system for several years to come.”
In the meantime, Safeway’s Washington customer Whitely said he was lucky to be retired because he can spend the day looking for products if the first stores he tries out are out. People who have to work or care for sick loved ones don’t have that luxury, he said.
“Some are trying to get food to survive. I’m just trying to cook a pot, ”he said.
Durbin reported from Detroit and Purifoy reported from Washington. Anne D’Innocenzio in New York contributed.