Benjamin Whitely went to a Safeway supermarket in Washington DC on Tuesday to grab some things for dinner. But he was disappointed to find the vegetable containers barren and a sparse selection of turkey, chicken and milk.
“It looks like I missed everything,” said Whitely, 67. “I’m going to have to go hunting for things now.”
Lack of U.S. grocery stores has become more acute in recent weeks as new problems – such as the rapidly spreading omicron variant and severe weather – have piled up on supply chain struggles and labor shortages that have plagued retailers since the coronavirus pandemic began .
The deficiency is widespread and affects products and meat as well as packaged goods such as grain. And they are being reported all over the country. U.S. groceries typically have 5% to 10% of their items sold out at any given time; right now, this unavailability fluctuates around 15%, according to Consumer Brands Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman.
Part of the scarcity that consumers see on store shelves is due to pandemic trends that never abated – and are exacerbated by omicron. Americans eat more at home than they used to, especially since offices and some schools remain closed.
The average U.S. household spent $ 144 a week at the grocery store last year, according to the FMI, an industry organization for groceries and food producers. That was a drop from the top of $ 161 in 2020, but still well above the $ 113.50 that households spent in 2019.
A deficit of truck drivers who started building before the pandemic also remains a problem. The American Trucking Associations said in October that the United States lacked an estimated 80,000 drivers, which is a historic high.
And shipping is still delayed, affecting everything from imported food to packaging printed abroad.
Retailers and food producers have been adapting to these realities since the beginning of 2020, when panic buying at the beginning of the pandemic brought the industry to a standstill. Many retailers keep several supplies of things like toilet paper on hand, for example, to avoid acute shortages.
“All the players in the supply chain ecosystem have reached a point where they have that handbook and they are able to navigate the basic level of challenges,” said Jessica Dankert, vice president of the supply chain at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. a trading group.
In general, the system works; Dankert notes that bare shelves have been a rare phenomenon for the past 20 months. It’s just that further complications are piled up on that baseline at the moment, she said.
As has been the case with staff at hospitals, schools and offices, the omicron variant has taken a heavy toll on food production lines. Sean Connolly, president and CEO of Conagra Brands, which manufactures Birds Eye frozen vegetables, Slim Jim meat snacks and other products, told investors last week that supplies from the company’s US factories will be limited for at least the next month due to omicron- related absence.
Workers’ illness also affects grocery stores. Stew Leonard Jr. is the president and CEO of Stew Leonard’s, a supermarket chain that operates stores in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. Last week, 8% of his workers – about 200 people – were either on sick leave or in quarantine. Normally, the absence level is more like 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 raw material suppliers have told him they are also dealing with omicron-related shortage of workers.
Still, Leonard says he generally gets shipments on time, and thinks the worst pandemic may already be over.
Weather-related events, from snowstorms in the northeast to forest fires in Colorado, have also affected product availability and caused some shoppers to fill more than usual, exacerbating supply problems caused by the pandemic.
Lisa DeLima, a spokeswoman for Mom’s Organic Market, an independent grocery store with locations in the Mid-Atlantic area, said the company’s stores did not have goods in stock last weekend because the winter weather stopped trucks trying to get from Pennsylvania to Washington.
That bottleneck has since been resolved, DeLima said. In her view, the periodic shortage of certain items that shoppers are seeing now is nothing compared to the more chronic shortages at the beginning of the pandemic.
“People do not have to panic about buying,” she said. “There are lots of products to pick up. It just takes a little longer to get from point A to point B.”
Experts disagree on how long grocery shopping will sometimes feel like a scam.
Dankert believes this is a hiccup and the country will soon fall back to more normal patterns, albeit with continued supply chain headaches and labor shortages.
“You’re not going to see long-term outcomes of products, just sporadic, isolated incidents __ the 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, says omicron-related disruptions may expand as the variant grabs the Midwest, with many large packaged food companies such as Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc. have activities.
Freeman believes the federal government should do a better job of ensuring that key food workers have access to tests. He also wishes there were uniform rules for things like quarantine procedures for vaccinated workers; Right now, he said, companies are dealing with a patchwork of local rules.
“I think, as we’ve seen before, this eases as each wave eases. But the question is, should we be on the whims of the virus, or can we produce the amount of test we need?” said Freeman.
In the long run, it may take groceries and food companies a while to figure out the customers’ buying patterns that occur when the pandemic subsides, said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for the food industry association FMI.
“We went from a just-in-time inventory system to an unprecedented demand on top of an unprecedented demand,” he said. “We’ll be playing with that whole inventory system for years to come.”
Meanwhile, Whitely, the Safeway customer in Washington, said he’s lucky he’s retired because he can spend the day looking for products if the first stores he tries are out. People who have to work or take care of sick loved ones do not have that luxury, he said.
“Some people try to get food to survive. I’m just trying to make a stew,” he said.