Why suburban retailers are once again struggling to keep shelves stocked

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If you can’t find what you’re looking for in many stores again, you’re not alone.

Retail industry experts say a host of issues have once again caused large bare spots on store shelves.

“It’s like any little thing right now is going to have an effect, because you’re trying to get your balance back,” said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “It’s kind of a boomerang effect of COVID.”

Retailers were already grappling with supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, but the omicron variant has created new staffing issues as a massive surge of cases keeps workers in all areas of the supply chain at home, experts note.

The problem is compounded by winter weather disruptions and inflation that are changing shopping habits.

“We have worked closely with our vendors and suppliers to ensure our customers have access to everything they need,” Jewel-Osco spokeswoman Mary Frances Trucco said. “While some categories may be limited, our stores have been diligent in providing alternative solutions and working quickly to fill any stockouts.”

The surge of the omicron variant has meant more work for stores – more deep cleaning, a return to masking and social distancing – just as more employees can’t work and take sick leave or quarantine.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

On a Monday call with 27 food industry chief executives, Geoff Freeman, CEO of industry organization Consumer Brands Association, said more employee absences had been reported in the past two weeks than during all year 2020.

“It’s remarkable,” he said. “Add to that the drop of 120,000 truck drivers nationwide and 10% absentee workers in food manufacturing plants, and you’re putting a lot of strain on the system at the same time.”

And manufacturers are streamlining production of best-selling products to maximize the fewest workers left, Karr said.

“Some companies have focused their efforts on flagship brands and reverted to less popular items,” he said. “And they also focus on certain sizes.”

That’s why consumers may not see particular soups on store shelves and only have the option of buying either an 8-ounce tub of peanut butter or a 4-pound tub.

Standard winter weather issues have also slowed an already struggling navigation network across the country.

“But again, the smallest thing pushes you back even further,” Karr said.

Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for FMI, a food industry organization, said bad weather also influences consumer psychology, which has played into some items running out of stock.

“There are certain products that people ritually buy when there’s an impending weather event,” Baker said. “And then when people see images of out-of-stock stores, it’s not unusual for people to buy two instead of one, just in case.”

And with more than 5,000 schools delayed in reopening this month due to the omicron surge and storms, families are feeling a greater urgency to stock up on bread, milk, meat and cereals for compensate for meals not consumed at school.

There has also been a big shift in shopping and dining habits.

Rising inflation, coupled with fear of exposure due to soaring omicron cases, is prompting households to eat more at home, flooding grocery stores with more shoppers.

Grocery sales climbed more than 8% in December, according to national retail sales tracker Mastercard SpendingPulse. Stores are still restocking after this surge and have struggled to keep shelves fully stocked in several categories since the start of the year.

“I think it will take the better half of 2022 to get back to relative normal,” Karr said, “assuming there are no other surprises.”

• The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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