Bare grocery shelves? Thank bad weather and COVID-19 for continued problems

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Benjamin Whiteley went to a Safeway supermarket in Washington DC to pick up some items for dinner on Tuesday. But he was disappointed to see the vegetable bins barren and the scarce selection of turkey, chicken and milk.

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“Looks like I missed everything,” said 67-year-old Whiteley. “I’ll have to look for stuff now.”

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Shortfalls in US grocery stores have become more acute in recent weeks as new problems – such as the fast-spreading Omicron version and severe weather – have piled up supply chain conflicts and labor shortages, which have plagued retail stores. Vendors have been plagued ever since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The shortage is widespread, affecting packaged goods such as produce and meat as well as cereals. And they are being reported across the country. US Grocery typically have 5% to 10% of their items out of stock at any given time; According to Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, the unavailability rate right now is around 15%.

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Part of the shortage consumers are seeing on store shelves is due in part to a pandemic trend that has never subsided — and has been exacerbated by Omicron. Americans are eating more at home than ever before, especially since offices and some schools remain closed.

According to FMI, a trade organization for groceries and food producers, the average American household spent $144 per week on groceries last year. This was down from a peak of $161 in 2020, but still much higher than the $113.50 households spent in 2019.

The shortage of truck drivers who started construction before the pandemic also remains a problem. The American Trucking Association said in October that the US has an estimated 80,000 drivers short, a historic high.

And shipping is delayed, affecting everything from imported foods to printed packaging overseas.

Retailers and food producers have been coping with those realities since early 2020, when panic at the start of the pandemic sent the industry into a tailspin. Many retailers are keeping more supplies of things like toilet paper on hand, for example, to avoid acute shortages.

Jessica Dankert, vice president of supply chain at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, said, “All players in the supply chain ecosystem have reached a point where they have that playbook and are able to navigate that baseline level of challenges. ” a business group.

Normally, the system works; Dankert notes that bare shelves have been a rare occurrence in the past 20 months. She said that at this point in time additional complications have arisen on that baseline.

As with employees in hospitals, schools and offices, the Omicron version has taken a toll on food production lines. Sean Connolly, president and CEO of Conagra Brands, which makes Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables, Slim Jim Meat snacks and other products, told investors last week that supplies from the company’s U.S. plants would be disrupted at least next month due to Omicron-related absences.

The disease of laborers is also affecting the grocery store. Steve Leonard Jr. is the President and CEO of Steve Leonards, a supermarket chain that operates stores in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Last week, 8% of his workers – about 200 people – were either sick or in quarantine. Usually, absenteeism levels are as high as 2%.

So many people were sick in a shop’s bakery that it spilled some of its usual items, like an apple slice of cake. Leonard says suppliers of meat and produce have told him they are also dealing with a labor shortage related to Omicron.

Still, Leonard says he’s generally getting shipments on time, and he thinks the worst of the pandemic may already be over.

Weather-related events, from snow storms in the Northeast to wildfires in Colorado, have also affected product availability and caused some shoppers to stockpile more than usual, adding to supply problems due to the pandemic. Is.

Lisa Delima, a spokeswoman for Mom Organic Markets, an independent grocer with locations in the Mid-Atlantic region, said the company’s stores didn’t have produce to stock last weekend because the winter weather caused trucks trying to get from Pennsylvania to Washington. was stopped.

That bottleneck has since been resolved, Delima said. In his view, shoppers’ intermittent shortages of certain items are now nothing compared to the more chronic shortages at the start of the pandemic.

“People need not panic about shopping. “There’s a lot of products to be had. It’s just taking a little longer to get from point A to point B.”

Experts are divided on how long grocery shopping will sometimes feel like a scavenger hunt.

Dankert thinks this is a hiccup, and the country will soon return to a more normal pattern, although supply chain headaches and labor shortages will continue.

“You’re not going to see long-term outages of products, just sporadic, isolated incidents __ that window where the supply chain takes a minute to catch up,” she said.

But others are not so optimistic.

Freeman of the Consumer Brands Association says Omicron-related disruptions could expand as the variant grips the Midwest, where many large packaged food companies such as Kellogg’s Company and General Mills Inc. operate.

Freeman believes the federal government should do a better job of ensuring that essential food workers get access to testing. He also wants uniform rules for things like quarantine procedures for vaccinated workers; Right now, he said, companies are operating with a patchwork of local regulations.

“I think, as we’ve seen before, it gets easier as each wave gets easier. But the question is, do we have to live up to the virus craze, or can we do as many tests as we need to. Needed? said Freeman.

Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for the food industry association FMI, said in the long term, it may take some time for groceries and food companies to detect customer buying patterns as the pandemic emerges.

“We went 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 that perfect inventory system for many years to come.”

Meanwhile, Whiteley, a Safeway customer in Washington, said he’s lucky he’s retired because he can spend days looking for the product if he tries the first store he runs out of. He said people who have to work or take care of sick loved ones don’t have that luxury.

“Some are trying to get food to survive. I am just trying to cook a casserole,” he said.

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