Here's why grocery store shelves are empty

There is no shortage of food, according to food industry leaders, yet there are empty shelves in grocery stores. Why is that? The reason goes beyond the fact that people began to hoard items last month. There is also a problem with distribution and the fact that Americans are cooking at home instead of going out to eat.

When the economy began to slow last month, shoppers began hoarding canned goods and cleaning items. The hoarding of toilet paper caught many retailers by surprise. A hoarding mentality took over as shoppers panicked. Along with the hoarding, grocers are experiencing shortages in particular regions and stores. Customers are focusing on a smaller selection of products, making standard abundances of choice unnecessary. Grocery stores often offer 40,000 items for purchase. In other words, shoppers are selecting specific products that must be replenished while other products sit on the shelves.

There is a problem with distribution. With restaurant sales typically accounting for half of the sales, the distribution system was developed for bulk sales, not smaller packaging found in supermarkets. With most meals now being made at home, consumer demand is higher for grocery sales. Overnight, restaurants closed and the alternative to cooking at home became picking up food or using a delivery service. If a worker is unemployed and uncertain when he or she will be employed again, cooking at home is the economical choice.

Fred Boehler, president and CEO of Americold, which provides a temperature-controlled supply chain to manufacturers, said U.S. grocery stores, food-service distribution centers, regional distribution centers and manufacturing facilities traditionally each hold up to about 30 days of product. Together, that’s four months of food in the system.

“But at the flip of a switch, the food-service sector slowed down and people wiped the grocery stores clean,” he said. “It’s sitting in everyone’s home fridges and freezers, and we have to backfill the grocery stores.”

Safety precautions are slowing down restocking shelves. Stores are closing earlier than normal and deep cleaning any surface that is touched by customers, which slows down restocking efforts. Shoppers are buying larger quantities of goods to eliminate more frequent trips to the store. Canned goods and items that will be safe to sit on home shelves for a long period of time are the most desirable purchases now. With so much uncertainty of when or if life will go back to normal, shopping habits have changed to adapt to how we are living life during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some food manufacturers are having to limit the choices of products in order to keep up with demands. For example, normally a shopper buying yogurt would have many choices but now only sees basic flavors and varieties. That sounds like a superficial first world problem but it’s an adjustment mentally for shoppers. If shelves look empty and choices are limited, panic sets in.

Grocery stores are offering items that consumers don’t need right now because that is what is sitting on the shelves. Retailers were expected to adjust to the new normal quickly when increased demands quickly arose and they are scrambling to pivot. People are learning to cook. Also, the USDA and the FDA have deregulated labeling and packaging for 60 days. This allows distributors who normally sell food meant for restaurants more leeway in adjusting to new packaging needs.

The USDA and FDA have deregulated labeling and packaging for 60 days to allow food to be redistributed. While there are usually four or five USDA food recalls each month, there hasn’t been a single one since the beginning of February, worrying food safety experts about lack of oversight. Still, Wadiak said, the pandemic may change for the better the paradigm of how people shop.

“I’m seeing folks interacting with real foods in a way that I haven’t seen in my lifetime, buying whole chickens, pork butts, things they might have previously thought of as daunting. They have the time now; they are learning and YouTubing.”

Fresh meat and produce is limited in many stores. Meat processing plants are closing down when workers become ill with the coronavirus and this disrupts the supply chain. There is no shortage of cows, pigs, or chickens. Adjustments have to be made, though, to find processing plants that can accommodate them when others close. The United States imports about half of its fruit. About 20% of vegetables are imported from Mexico this time of year.

Industries like the seafood and dairy industries that rely heavily on restaurants are having to find new creative ways to sell products. Canned tuna sales are up 200%, and SafeCatch is up 400% because canned tuna is a cheap source of protein that will last for a long time on pantry shelves. The seafood industry is asking everyone to buy its products on a weekly basis to ease the pain it is feeling.

Some fish producers are trying to sell more of their product in the retail market to make up for the loss. Customers are still buying plenty of food at grocery stores and sales are rising for many products there. So if this 12-week campaign using social media and marketing to encourage more consumers to buy and cook seafood at home is successful, it could help the industry.

“America’s seafood community is in crisis,” The Seafood4Health Action Coalition said in a release. “The coronavirus poses a significant threat to the future of an industry that employs approximately 2 million Americans. That’s why we’re asking everyone in America to support the seafood community by eating seafood and buying seafood each week.”

Unfortunately, with the problems of distribution facing America’s farmers and dairy producers, food and milk is going to waste. This further hurts the dairy producers due to prices dropping with milk being dumped instead of heading to restaurants or schools.

Supermarket chains, like Kroger, have begun to partner with large companies that sell to restaurants and school cafeterias, like Sysco and U.S. Food, to provide products like eggs that are increasing in price due to shortages because of distribution problems. I know I can vouch for the price of a dozen eggs rising and lately I’ve been having trouble buying them.

Shortages are different in different parts of the country. I have no problem finding ground beef here in Texas yet other areas of the country are experiencing shortages. The same will likely be true of pork with some of the large pork processing plants experiencing shutdowns due to employees testing positive to COVID-19.

I’ll end with this little tidbit – the hot item now that shoppers are looking for is hair dye. Salons and barbershops are closed and people are coloring their hair at home. The great hunkering down has been going on for several weeks now and true hair color is being exposed. That’s a little levity during all the stress of food purchasing during a pandemic.