No pasta or cat food? Empty store shelves here to stay
Online searches are surging for basic products, reflecting consumer anxiety over necessities.
By Brendan Case and Daniela Sirtori-Cortina | Bloomberg
Social-media sites are full of photographs of empty grocery-store shelves, and the head of one of the biggest U.S. supermarket chains says the situation will take weeks to improve.
Albertsons Cos. had been expecting that supply outages would be improving by now, but “omicron has put a bit of a dent” in that, Chief Executive Officer Vivek Sankaran said Tuesday. As a result, the company is still contending with a range of products that are out of stock after months of similar headaches.
“We would expect more supply challenges over the next four to six weeks,” he said on a conference call with Wall Street analysts after Albertsons reported earnings. “As a business, we’ve all learned to manage it, we’ve all learned to make sure that the stores are still very presentable — give the consumers as much choice as we can get.”
Omicron is exacerbating disruptions in food supply chains that are already stressed. Rising U.S. infections mean more workers are getting sick at farms, factories, distributors and retailers, crimping the flow of goods to shoppers just as the variant prompts people to eat at home more. Port congestion and winter weather in parts of the country aren’t helping, either.
Online searches are surging for basic products, reflecting consumer anxiety over supplies. As of Tuesday afternoon, the list includes chicken, potatoes, spinach, pasta, meat, lettuce, eggs, cream cheese and cat food.
Shortages appeared most acute for food compared with packaged goods such as cleaning and beauty supplies, according to data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI for the week ended Jan. 9.
States with the biggest shortages of food and beverages included Alaska, Alabama, Hawaii, Mississippi and West Virginia.
The Consumer Brands Association, which represents makers of packaged goods, called on the government to facilitate more coronavirus tests.
“The supply chain is fragile and unable to absorb further shocks — whether winter storms or, far more impactfully, omicron — and that’s showing up as empty shelves,” said Geoff Freeman, the trade group’s CEO. “In the near term, that means supporting workers who are essential to supply-chain continuity. Testing is the most critical need.”
An ongoing shortage of truckers continues to slow down the supply chain and the ability of grocery stores to replenish their shelves quickly.
“The trucking industry has an aging workforce on top of a shortage,” said Phil Lempert, an industry analyst and editor of SuperMarketGuru.com. “It’s really been a problem for the last several years.”
Layered atop widespread domestic transportation issues is the ongoing record-high level of congestion at the nation’s ports. “Both of these challenges are working in tandem to create shortages,” he said.
Much of the Midwest and Northeast has recently been grappling with severe weather and hazardous commuting conditions. Not only are people stocking up on more groceries, that level of high demand coupled with transportation challenges is making it more difficult to transport goods in inclement weather, thus resulting in more shortages, said Lempert.
Climate change also presents an ongoing and longer term threat to food supply.
“Fires and droughts are damaging crops such as wheat, corn and soybean in the US and coffee crops in Brazil,” he said. “We can’t ignore it.”
Shelves sit empty at a Walmart in Anchorage, Alaska, on Jan. 8. Shortages at U.S. grocery stores have grown in recent weeks as new problems — like the fast-spreading omicron variant and severe weather — have piled on to the supply chain struggles and labor shortages that have plagued retailers since the coronavirus pandemic began. MARK THIESSEN — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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