Grocery stores still have empty shelves amid supply chain disruptions, omicron and storms

The new year hasn't stopped ongoing food shortages.

Shortages at grocery stores across the country have grown more acute in recent weeks as omicron continues to spread and winter storms have piled on to the supply chain struggles and labor shortages.

The shortages being reported nationwide are widespread, impacting produce and meat as well as packaged goods such as cereal.

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While items are harder to find, many also cost more with rising inflation.

The consumer price index jumped 7% last year, the fastest pace since 1982, the Labor Department said Wednesday. That's up from 6.8% annually in November, which was also a nearly four-decade high.

Albertsons' CEO Vivek Sankaran spoke about supply chain challenges during the company's earnings call with analysts Tuesday.

"I think as a business, we've all learned to manage it,” Sankaran said. “We've all learned to make sure that the stores are still very presentable, give the consumers as much choice as we can get.”

Curt Covington, senior director of institutional credit at AgAmerica, told USA TODAY that the trends for specific food shortages are intermittent and varied.

“Shortages depend on the item, store, and region of the country,” Covington said. “Shortages can be driven by supply chain issues, consumer behavior, or environmental factors, so it’s hard to pinpoint what will be affected next.”

COVID-19, bad weather impact shortages

As the world reaches the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, more items are becoming scarce because of global supply chain disruptions such as congestion at ports and shortages of truck drivers and service workers.

Part of the scarcity consumers are seeing on store shelves is due to pandemic trends that never abated – and are exacerbated by omicron. Americans are eating at home more than they used to, especially since offices and some schools remain closed.

Weather-related events, from snowstorms in the Northeast to wildfires in Colorado, also have impacted product availability and caused some shoppers to stock up more than usual, exacerbating supply problems caused by the pandemic.

U.S. groceries typically have 5% to 10% of their items out of stock at any given time; right now, that unavailability rate is hovering around 15%, according to Consumer Brands Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman.

Patrick Penfield, professor of supply chain practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, recently told USA TODAY that cream cheese and international foods were among the food products in short supply.

“As you walk through a lot of stores you won’t see the quantity and quality of items you are accustomed to seeing,” Penfield said, adding some shortages are regional due to labor and truck shortages.

In a recent study by business consultancy KPMG, 71% of grocery consumers said they were somewhat or very concerned about shortages or stockouts with 35% switching brands when their favorite items are out of stock.

Costco limits purchases of some items

Some retailers have been limiting purchases of select items, similar to policies implemented at the start of the pandemic. But panic buying, especially of toilet paper, returned this summer as the delta variant spread.

In August, Costco brought back temporary purchase limits on some items including toilet paper.

According to Costco's website, some warehouses may have temporary item limits on select items.

Southeastern Grocers and Publix among businesses impacted

Representatives of Publix and Southeastern Grocers responded to questions from The Record about supply issues.

Maria Brous, director of communications for Publix, said in an email to The Record: "The supermarket supply chain is under a lot of stress, impacted by product and labor shortages, demand, record exports, shipping constraints and inflation. We continue to maintain constant communication with our suppliers; however, various product lines may be out of stock in assorted categories."

Meredith Hurley is the director of public relations and community for Southeastern Grocers, the parent company of Winn-Dixie stores, Fresco y Más and Harveys Supermarket.

Hurley said in an email to The Record that omicron and flu season are having an impact, with "a higher demand for popular cold and flu medications and health-related products, such as respiratory care items. In addition, staple items like paper products are selling briskly, as are cleaning supplies."

"Our well-experienced supply chain team is updating our stocking plans throughout each day to ensure that popular products are on the shelf," according to Hurley. "We continue to work closely with our vendor partners and distribution centers to navigate these challenges and operate with precision to deliver shopping experiences our customers can always count on at the right price."

Baby formula shortage

In-stock levels for baby formula and baby food nationwide are slightly higher than for food products overall, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Krishnakumar Davey, president of strategic analytics at IRI, told the Journal the shortages are intermittent and vary based on retailer and location. Davey said some of the nation’s 10 largest retailers had more than 20% of baby formula out of stock the week ended Jan. 2.

Some parents have been taking to social media to ask formula makers where they can buy products.

“We are experiencing obstacles in the production and shipping of some of our products as the pandemic continues to cause issues with the supply chain. We appreciate your patience as we navigate this dynamic situation,” Enfamil, a brand of formula, said on Twitter Dec. 29 in respondse to one parent’s plea for help.

Enfamil also said parents can see real-time product availability at stores on its website.

Cream cheese shortage

Bagel shops have been struggling with the cream cheese shortage and Junior's Cheesecake had to stop production twice at its New Jersey-based facility because it didn't have enough cream cheese.

But cream cheese has also been missing at stores, particularly Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

In December, the Kraft brand offered consumers help paying for a replacement dessert, acknowledging the ongoing supply chain disruption of the key cheesecake ingredient.

Andrew Tobisch, a spokesperson for Schreiber Foods, said every cream cheese provider has struggled to keep up with demand.

"While that demand has been steady, it’s really world events that are the biggest driver. Things like the pandemic, labor shortages and supply chain disruptions are all hurdles that everyone is having to overcome," Tobisch said in an email to USA TODAY.

Aluminum shortage

More consumers have opted to enjoy their favorite beverages in the comfort of their homes causing a higher demand for canned drinks. But the pandemic is only part of the problem.

The demand for can products accumulated for years according to a Quartz article. Canned drinks are cheaper to make and transport, and easier to market and design, initiating the highest prices for aluminum the market has seen in the past 10 years, senior analyst Salvator Tiano told Quartz.

Cat food, dog food shortages

Shipping woes and aluminum shortages have led to a scarcity problem for the pet food industry as stores throughout the country are unable to stock all their traditional brands and products.

Consumers are also feeling the impact. Many USA TODAY readers said canned or wet cat food was one of the top items they have been struggling to find.

These shortages are impacting the movement of ingredients and finished products, the Pet Food Institute told USA TODAY. Along with labor and transportation shortages, pet owners are spending more time with their pets which can lead to increased feeding and more treating. The high demand has resulted in larger purchases.

Marcie Rivera, a spokesperson for Wegmans told the MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Massachusetts, part of the USA TODAY Network, that suppliers around the world "are being faced with an array of challenges affecting their businesses, causing a domino effect on retailers and customers."

Chicken tender shortage

Chicken tenders may be the next casualty of supply-chain-generated shortages, according to a recent NBC News story. Chicken tenders require more processing and packaging, which makes them harder to find and more costly, the story said.

Meat manufacturers have cited extreme weather, labor shortages and high demand among the reasons consumers are having trouble finding tenders.

A spokesman for the National Chicken Council said products were taking longer than normal to get to their destinations but that does not constitute a "shortage."

"There is no chicken tender shortage," said Tom Super, senior vice president of communications with the trade group. "Like almost all goods right now, supplies are somewhat tight, but I would say it falls short of any 'shortage.'"

Lunchables shortage

For months, parents have reported trouble finding Kraft Heinz' Lunchables. The company told USA TODAY that it has been seeing double-digit growth for the first time in five years.

High demand is one reason why it's harder to find these items.

“Our entire supply chain continues to step up – taking actions that protect our business today, while working hard to not delay critical investments that set us up for the future,” Kraft Heinz said in the statement.

Toilet paper shortage

In spring 2020, demand for toilet paper skyrocketed as Americans were faced with a possibly lengthy stay-at-home future. Panic buying of bath tissue has returned at various times throughout the pandemic. This shortage stems from lumber's raw material, wood pulp, which is used to make toilet paper.

Champagne shortage could impact celebrations for years

The nation is in the early stages of a champagne shortage that is expected to last several years, according to Wine Enthusiast.

Drizly, North America's largest alcohol e-commerce and on-demand delivery platform, surveyed 500 alcohol retailers and found 80% said they were at least slightly concerned about the champagne supply running short.

Even with the shortages, Liz Paquette, Drizly head of consumer insights, said champagne and prosecco continue to be the top-selling sparkling wines with 63% and 18% of market share.

Beer shortage

Having a hard time finding your favorite craft beer? It could be part of the aluminum shortage, but the price of ingredients for beer are also skyrocketing because of supply chain issues throughout the world.

Sam Hendler, co-owner of Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers in Framingham, Massachusetts, and president of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild, told MetroWest Daily News that the cost increases being felt by breweries are universal and a big topic among colleagues.

In the past, manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the demand to make cans, but now even when cans are available, getting them to breweries can be difficult.

Contributing: Associated Press; Paul Davidson, Naomi Ludlow, Michelle Shen and Taylor Avery, USA TODAY; Norman Miller, MetroWest Daily News; Sheldon Gardner, The St. Augustine Record.

This article originally appeared on St. Augustine Record: Grocery stores countrywide, and in St. Johns County, face challenges