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The Grocery Supply Chain Is Failing Us

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I read a somewhat ironic piece in Progressive Grocer today. The headline was “As Panic Buying, Foot Traffic Decline, Basket Sizes Continue To Grow.” The article then goes on to say that even though foot traffic is way down, “Total sales dollars continued to be up by an average of 13% compared with the same period in 2019…”

I have this to say about “panic buying.” Food (especially home delivery or curbside pickup) shopping has settled into a very Soviet Union-style quiet grab for whatever products you can find, and buying more of everything because, well – you just never know when those items are going to be in stock again. When you place the order, you’re not quite clear until the very end, when it is actually going to arrive. Is that panic buying? I suppose it is quiet desperation buying, and at least in the US, the grocery industry and its supply chain should be ashamed of itself.

By now, most of you have read the Marker blog that explains “what everyone is getting wrong about the toilet paper shortage.” There really isn’t a shortage of toilet paper; apparently, there’s a shortage of residential toilet paper and it’s not because consumers are hoarding, it’s because businesses are closed, and commercial toilet paper usage is down while residential usage is up. Commercial and residential toilet paper are often made in different mills and re-tooling is hard. I might’ve bought that last month. Now? Not so much. Are the milling machines working too hard? Are there laws against 24*7 production? Then there are rationales that toilet paper and paper towels are bulky, so distributors and manufacturers must use a lot of cubic transportation space to ship them to stores. And? Does that make it okay not to deliver what people want? And if panic buying is down, where the heck is the toilet paper? By the way, do we really think toilet paper and paper towels are the only things that are out of stock?

Here’s the point, and it’s not just about paper products. I don’t go to grocery stores anymore. Miami is supposed to be a Covid-19 hot spot coming soon, and I really don’t want to have the virus experience. I am in very serious lockdown mode. Clearly, I’m not alone, as even with those high grocery comparable sales numbers, store traffic is down 31% year over year. Truth be told, in the current times, it should be down more than that. But the out of stocks on almost everything are borderline embarrassing. It’s swell that that sale of baking supplies is up (I cannot imagine being in the house with children week after week – medals and kudos to all parents!). And frankly, after a month or two, with employment numbers plummeting, extra help available and grocery the only business that’s doing well, you’d think the industry would be getting the hang of it by now. As the old saying goes, “throw bodies at the problem.” Live, healthy ones.

On Saturday I had to do a (literal) nationwide hunt for baby food (for cats, in this case, but still) on social media, with a friend in California scoring a couple of cases for me in the 10 minutes the products were in stock on Amazon. One industry friend proudly said that she managed to buy a case of toilet paper (12 pack, probably) from the same company, and it had arrived! The flow of dairy seems unimpeded but most everything else is in short supply. Substitutions galore. I don’t eat meat, but I hear that chicken has been hard to find. We haven’t reached the point of produce shortage yet (mostly), but you know it’s coming. I do. Then what?

So, my primary question is, what the heck is the matter here? I will say that while I’ve always done a bit of overbuying on almost everything, and carry a heavy handbag stocked with supplies “just in case” I get stuck somewhere for a couple of weeks, I’m now grabbing whatever I can. NOW I’m hoarding.

I guess I’m saying this to the grocery supply chain. In the immortal words of Cher in Moonstruck, “Snap out of it!” Get it together. Yes, it’s great that you’ve started protecting your workers and are enforcing protections for in-store shoppers, almost against their wills (good move, seriously!). But this isn’t over by a long shot and you do have a certain obligation to the communities you operate within. Ship more often. So what if the items are bulky? You have a captive audience for your product. Gas prices are down. You are providing a service. I actually found myself thanking the pharmacy tech who slipped my scrip through the drive-through window by saying “thank you for your service.” Retail and food workers in general are truly performing a service now.

This will all be over one day. I think I’ll be looking for new places to shop for food. I’ve already found more accessible and generally in a better in-stock position than its main online rival. But long term that’s likely not my own solution. I’m thinking I’m going to want to buy local. Sort of like what Whole Foods Market was once upon a time, but with a broader assortment. Quality products, in stock, and if I pay a little more, so be it. We’ll be re-building our economy for some time anyway. Might as well do some things differently.

Others will go back to Walmart or Target. Both have acquitted themselves well through the storm we’re in. They’ve protected their workers and their customers.

But dang, for the industry at large, a little flexibility would have gone a long, long way. You really have failed your shoppers. From the makers of canned goods through yeah, the paper products sellers.

Snap out of it. Fix it. And take advantage of the golden opportunity that’s staring you in the face during this otherwise horrifying storm.

Newsletter Articles April 7, 2020
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