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VOL. 46 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 28, 2022

Why can’t I find what I want at the grocery?

Supply chain, from truckers to container makers, just can’t keep up

By Nicki Pendleton Wood

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Maybe by the time you read this, toaster strudels and refrigerated crescent roll dough will be for sale at the grocery store. Rice Krispies, Shake-n-Bake, chips and juice boxes might be reliably available to shoppers. Possibly you’ll have all kinds of choices in frozen entrees.

But not lately. Empty shelves at the grocery store are another burden for the pandemic-weary shopper in search of both necessities and treats. From hot dog buns to chicken parts to rice portions in heatable bags, the list of groceries that shoppers can’t find is long and occasionally weirdly specific.

Here’s a partial list of foods that Nashville area shoppers report as scarce in their preferred grocery store:

Milk, gluten-free foods, coconut milk, chocolate chips, green onions, saltines, canned beans, jalapeños, sweet potatoes, corn chips of all brands and most other chips;

Microwave pasta meals, oyster crackers, frozen breakfast items, frozen entrees, frozen potato products, frozen pizza, juice boxes;

Cuervo Gold, cookie dough, greens, Rice Krispies, Gushers, toaster strudels, Dr. Pepper, honey buns, Shake-n-Bake, German chocolate cake mix, cold medicine, cat food.

And there’s no single reason for the scarcity. In fact, there are many. Some shortages can be clustered under “kinks in the supply chain,” says Rob Ikard, president of the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association. “You don’t know where they’re going to hit, or what items will be affected.”

Restaurants too are working harder to source ingredients and supplies. Deb Paquette, chef-owner of Etch and etc., keeps a mental list. “French feta cheese, coconut milk, cream cheese, taleggio cheese. Tito’s vodka couldn’t find bottles. Paper and to-go supplies – we are wiped out because in the pandemic everyone was doing takeout-only for a year and a-half.”

“Last week our suppliers were out of so many things,” she said in mid-January. “I’d make a menu and go online to order and see ‘out of stock.’”

Plant closures account for gaps in some food supplies, beef and pork being the highest profile. Production of beef and pork in 2020 was down 40% from the previous year because of plant shutdowns, reported in industry economics journals and Frontiers of Veterinary Science.

Transportation underemployment explains other shortages, including the flour shortage during the 2020 lockdown that was well-documented in media and social media.

Flour mills boosted production by as much as 40% but couldn’t find transportation, the Wall Street Journal reports. (Aug 10, 2020).

Trucker numbers fell 22% in 2020, trucking industry trend watchers report. That’s atop an industry-estimated employment shortfall of about 80,000 drivers, the American Trucking Association reports.

Gov. Bill Lee joined 14 other state governors in November to sign the “Operation Open Road” initiative to grow the pool of trucker trainees. Measures include loosening time and tonnage regulations, actively recruiting trucker trainees, bypassing vaccine mandates and lowering trainee age to 18, as reported by Tennessee Farm Bureau.

Packaging problems are the basis of other shortages, including Gatorade and fresh salads. A spokesperson for the Refrigerated Foods Association in Roswell, Georgia, blamed a scarcity of plastic deli containers that many salads are packed in. Gatorade told an industry magazine that it couldn’t quickly obtain sufficient bottles and cans when demand increased midyear 2021, as people began venturing out again.

Labor shortages negatively affect both manufacturing and grocery store ends of the chain. The Labor Department estimates 10 million jobs remain unfilled due to early retirements and low immigration.

Worry over the transmissibility of Omicron also seems to be holding down participation in the labor market, Ikard explains.

“Omicron has infected even people who were vaccinated and/or already recovered from a previous COVID strain,” he adds. It’s a double blow to staffing, as both sick workers and those concerned about contracting Omicron are out of the workforce.

Paquette says her restaurants are just now fully staffed up after a couple of thin years, during which, at one point, her chef at etc. was also washing the dishes.

Unfilled jobs in transport, manufacturing and packaging all contributed to high costs, which are passed along to the shopper. The grocery price index increased about 7% from December 2020 to December 2021, the highest one-year price increase since 1981. Ordinary inflation would have been around 2%.

The Federal Trade Commission announced in November a probe into the operations of food retailers and suppliers, requesting “detailed information to help the FTC shed light on the causes behind ongoing supply chain disruptions.”

The move was supported by the National Grocers Association, an industry group of independent grocers, who maintain that the large players such as Walmart, Amazon, Kraft Heinz, Procter & Gamble, Tyson are “using their size to demand better terms, better prices and better products from suppliers.”

Also in late November, the White House convened a roundtable discussion on America’s supply chain problems and issued a briefing on weak areas of the chain and a plan to improve infrastructure.

Some current shortages have causes unconnected to the pandemic-hit supply chain. Coconut milk is scarcer because coconut palm plantations are aging-out and producing fewer coconuts. Hummus has been scarce, likely because Sabra, with its 60% hummus market share, suspended about 20 products. The move may be connected to an FDA warning letter over salmonella in a hummus sample.

As for cream cheese, a cyber attack last year crippled mega manufacturer Schreiber, which makes cream cheese for many national and store brands.

Disruption in the grocery space has led to louder calls for paring back the number of products to just the bestsellers.

A grocery industry white paper shared confidentially with The Ledger highlights the competitive disadvantage and complexity of managing the growing number of new products.

Product proliferation is a problem for grocers and consumers – stores typically stock 80% more products than 30 years ago. Consumers sometimes struggle to find a favorite product among shelves jam-packed with many variations.

If consumers learned anything about the grocery system’s inner workings during the pandemic years, it’s been that the system is complex, fragile and resilient, just like shoppers, and doing its best to overcome challenges and live up to expectations in a difficult climate.

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