(AP) – Benjamin Whitely went to a Safeway supermarket in Washington DC on Tuesday to pick up some items for dinner. But he was disappointed to find the crispers sterile and a sparse selection of turkey, chicken and milk.
“Looks like I screwed it all up,” Whitely, 67, said. “I’m going to have to look for stuff now.”
Shortages at U.S. grocery stores have worsened in recent weeks as new issues — like the fast-spreading omicron variant and inclement weather — piled on supply chain difficulties and labor shortages. that have plagued retailers since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Shortages are widespread, affecting produce and meat as well as packaged goods such as cereals. And they are 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 rate hovers around 15%, according to Consumer Brands Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman.
Some of the scarcity consumers are seeing on store shelves is due to pandemic trends that have never abated – and are exacerbated by omicron. Americans are eating more at home than before, especially as 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 the high of $161 in 2020, but still well above the $113.50 spent by households in 2019.
A trucking deficit that began to widen before the pandemic also remains a problem. The American Trucking Associations said in October that the United States was short about 80,000 drivers, an all-time high.
And shipping continues to be delayed, impacting everything from imported food to overseas-printed packaging.
Food retailers and producers have been adjusting to these realities since the start of 2020, when panic buying at the start of the pandemic brought the industry down. Many retailers keep more supplies like toilet paper on hand, for example, to avoid serious shortages.
“All players in the supply chain ecosystem have come to a point where they have this playbook and they are able to navigate this base level of challenges,” said Jessica Dankert, vice president of supply chain at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade association.
Generally, 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 at the moment, she said.
As with staff in hospitals, schools and offices, the omicron variant has wreaked havoc 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 U.S. factories in the company will be restricted for at least the next month due to omicron-related absences.
Workers’ illness is also affecting 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 rather around 2%.
A store bakery had so many sick people that it dropped some of its usual items, like apple crumb cake. Leonard says meat and fresh produce suppliers have told him they’re also facing omicron-related labor shortages.
Still, Leonard says he usually receives shipments on time and thinks the worst of the pandemic may already be over.
Weather-related events, from snowstorms in the Northeast to wildfires in Colorado, have also impacted product availability and caused some buyers to stock up more than usual, exacerbating the supply problems caused by the pandemic.
Lisa DeLima, spokeswoman for Mom’s Organic Market, an independent grocery store in the Mid-Atlantic region, said the company’s stores had no products to stock last weekend because the weather winter had interrupted trucks trying to get from Pennsylvania to Washington.
That bottleneck has since been resolved, DeLima said. In his view, the intermittent shortage of certain items shoppers are seeing now pales in comparison to the more chronic shortages at the start of the pandemic.
“People don’t need to panic to buy,” she said. “There are a lot of products to have. It’s just a bit longer to get from point A to point B.”
Experts are divided on how long the grocery store will sometimes feel like a treasure hunt.
Dankert believes this is a setback and the country will soon return to more normal patterns, albeit with lingering supply chain headaches and labor shortages.
“You’re not going to see long-term product outages, just sporadic, isolated incidents __ that window where it takes the supply chain a minute to catch up,” she said.
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But others are not so optimistic.
Freeman of the Consumer Brands Association says omicron-related disruption could expand as the variant takes hold of the Midwest, where many large packaged food companies like Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc. have activities.
Freeman thinks 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 lessens as each wave subsides. But the question is, should we be at the mercy of the virus, or can we produce the amount of tests we need? Freeman said.
Longer term, it could take some time for grocery stores and food companies to understand the customer buying habits that are emerging as the pandemic recedes, said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for IMF food industry association.
“We’ve 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.”
Meanwhile, Whitely, the Safeway customer in Washington, said he’s lucky to be retired because he can spend the day looking for products if the first stores he tries are closed. People who have to work or care for sick loved ones don’t have that luxury, he said.
“Some try to get food to survive. I’m just trying to cook a casserole,” he said.
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